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An ode to Benedict College, an HBCU where this student's dreams were rekindled

The Benedict College Marching Tigers Band of Distinction drum majors leave the field after a halftime performance during the school's homecoming game on Oct. 29, 2022.
Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
The Benedict College Marching Tigers Band of Distinction drum majors leave the field after a halftime performance during the school's homecoming game on Oct. 29, 2022.

Dear Benedict,

Every October, you open your gates and welcome your children home. Friends and alumni sprinkle photos and stories on social media, reminiscing on the days we walked your yard while making travel arrangements on work computers to sit in our favorite hangout spots one more time. I never told you this, but if it were not for someone on your admissions team taking a chance on me — a young woman from Bed-Stuy Brooklyn with terrible grades, low SAT scores and big dreams of becoming a reporter and photographer — none of these memories would belong to me and October would be just another month.

Benedict College's cheerleading squad performs outside the David H. Swinton Campus Center during the school's homecoming weekend, on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Benedict College's cheerleading squad performs outside the David H. Swinton Campus Center during the school's homecoming weekend, on Oct. 29, 2022.
Fern Romero III, a graduating senior and a defensive back on the Tigers' football team, cheers on his teammates from the sidelines before returning to the field during the school's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Fern Romero III, a graduating senior and a defensive back on the Tigers' football team, cheers on his teammates from the sidelines before returning to the field during the school's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.

I was too embarrassed to include in my application essay that Benedict College was my last shot at attending an institution of higher education. Being rejected from six of the seven schools I applied to at the start of my senior year of high school and never hearing back from the one that placed me on their waitlist affected my mental and emotional health. I watched each of my friends shop and prepare to leave Brooklyn to attend their college of choice while I made peace with letting go of my childhood dreams of traveling the world in search of stories to tell.

Mark Byrd of Charlotte, N.C., (right) and the Rev. Gillette Scott Ash, of Charleston, S.C., celebrate the class of 1972's 50th reunion during the Tigers' homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Mark Byrd of Charlotte, N.C., (right) and the Rev. Gillette Scott Ash, of Charleston, S.C., celebrate the class of 1972's 50th reunion during the Tigers' homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022.
Tigers fans tailgate during Benedict College's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Tigers fans tailgate during Benedict College's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.
Tigers fans tailgate during Benedict College's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
/
Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Tigers fans tailgate during Benedict College's homecoming game against the Clark Atlanta University Panthers on Oct. 29, 2022.

One afternoon, I grabbed my rejection letters and started the painful process of shredding them. Mixed in the stack of white sheets was a purple and gold pamphlet from Benedict College that I'd requested days after watching their gospel choir perform at a collegiate competition hosted by my high school. The choir came in second place but something about their energy on stage made me want to know more about the school most people in the audience — including myself — had never heard of. I took a chance and filled out the application I'd printed from the school's website because I felt I had nothing to lose. Benedict, you responded with an acceptance letter and leaflets showing me everything I had to gain.

Being admitted into the mass communications program was my chance at restoring faded journalistic dreams. As a student, I joined the Tiger newspaper, I made friends that I can still rely on today and never once did I have to go above and beyond to prove to my teachers why I belonged at Benedict College because they did a wonderful job reminding me of my worth.

Benedict College's Marching Tigers Band of Distinction performs outside the David H. Swinton Campus Center during homecoming weekend on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Benedict College's Marching Tigers Band of Distinction performs outside the David H. Swinton Campus Center during homecoming weekend on Oct. 29, 2022.
Alumni celebrate Benedict College at the HBCU's homecoming events in October 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Alumni celebrate Benedict College at the HBCU's homecoming events in October 2022.
Benedict College's cheerleading squad performs on Sumter Street in downtown Columbia, S.C., during the school's homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Benedict College's cheerleading squad performs on Sumter Street in downtown Columbia, S.C., during the school's homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022.

A lot has changed in the 15 years since I graduated. You've elected the first woman president and CEO in the college's history, Roslyn Clark Artist, and under her leadership, students continue to flourish in their fields. Earlier this year, you became the first HBCU to offer a gaming room and a degree in esports, our football team has had a successful season and, in November, the Band of Distinction will march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A lot of people don't know these things about you, but I'll try to spread the good news as best as I can.

Benedict College alumni pose for a selfie at the school's homecoming celebration in October.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Benedict College alumni pose for a selfie at the school's homecoming celebration in October.
Benedict College alumni and supporters gather to watch the school's homecoming parade in downtown Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 29, 2022.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
Benedict College alumni and supporters gather to watch the school's homecoming parade in downtown Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 29, 2022.
One of Benedict College's future tigers takes in the school's homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022, with a lollipop in hand.
/ Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
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Zakiyyah Woods for NPR
One of Benedict College's future tigers takes in the school's homecoming parade on Oct. 29, 2022, with a lollipop in hand.

Benedict College may not be as popular as some of the other larger HBCUs, but every one of us that's had the privilege of being educated under your guidance adorn ourselves in the rich purple and gold of your letters, shield and emblem with pride and sing the last line of our song loud: "Alma mater, strong and true, Alma mater ever! Benedict, we sing to you. Faithful we, forever."

Zakiyyah Woods is a photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. See more of her work at ZakiyyahWoods.com and on Instagram at @lens.on.swivel.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zakiyyah Woods