Kennesaw State student: ‘I didn’t think I would fit in at an HBCU’

12:01 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 Local

NOTE: Delanie Mason and Kendall Youngblood made different choices when it came to deciding whether to attend an HBCU. This is one of two articles that profile the women and explain their decisions. Read Kendall’s story here.

There was something different about Delanie Mason when she moved into her freshman dorm at Kennesaw State in August. 

The night before, she had surprised her family by cutting nearly all her hair off.

As a show of strength, decisiveness and independence, the shoulder-length black hair that she had all her life needed to go, she said.

“It was a new start. It is being by myself and being my own person,” Delanie said. “I am doing a lot of things to grow, so this is like a new slate for me, while sticking to my roots. I am not a new person, but I can now feel the wind on my scalp now.”

It would not be the first time she surprised her family. Delanie’s decision to attend KSU instead of a historically black college breaks decades of family traditions.

Her older brother, Trey Mason, started out at Morehouse College, before transitioning to Auburn to complete a dual degree engineering program.

Her parents met on the campus of North Carolina Central University in the 1980s.

The father, Donald Mason, an Atlanta-area middle school principal, followed his father, cousins and uncles to the Durham campus.

“It wasn’t an option for me,” said Donald Mason, who went to high school in College Park. “I knew it was NCCU or nothing.”

Delanie’s mother, Teresa Walker-Mason, a retired attorney, picked NCCU’s full scholarship over Howard University, although home state schools like the University of North Carolina and N.C. State, liked her high school grades.

When Walker-Mason was elected Miss NCCU for the 1990 school year, she and Donald Mason instantly became the hottest couple on campus – even touring other schools as examples of what HBCU students are supposed to stand for.

“Those trips were very valuable in seeing how life was on other black college campuses and understanding how blessed we were to be a part of it,” Donald Mason said.

But Delanie Mason was looking elsewhere.

“Attending an HBCU? I never saw that as a priority for me,” she said. “I wanted some place that was actually more diverse and aligned more to what I am used to. I didn’t think I would fit in at an HBCU.”

KSU becomes known for diversity

Delanie and her father load what looks like her whole bedroom into large bins to move into her dorm room. She and younger sister Deja push the massive cart through the parking lot when they are approached by two members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity.

ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Delanie Mason, 18, at her family home on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Dacula. Delanie has decided to go to KSU rather than a HBCU. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

»MORE: Listen to Delanie Mason’s father’s story about attending NCCU in the HBCU Journeys podcast

Out of the sight of their father — who is also a member of that fraternity — the sisters receive fliers to a party. Still in high school, Deja is excited, although it is clear she is not going to the party. Delanie, unfazed, continues to push the cart through a sea of wide-eyed freshmen and frustrated parents.

Black student enrollment has steadily grown at KSU in the past five years, reaching 7,408 in 2016. The number of Hispanics on campus is also rising. Combined, the two groups equal that of the largest ethnic group on campus – whites, which makes KSU one of the most diverse schools in Georgia.

This summer, “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education” ranked KSU among the top 100 colleges and universities in the nation in degrees conferred on minorities. 

“The school has definitely made strides in a wide variety of areas, including our offices of diversity and inclusion,” said KSU’s admissions director, Sam Mahra. “We are reflective of the diversity in Atlanta.”

‘What was right for me at the time’

As KSU’s black enrollment has increased, black colleges have seen a steady decline in enrollment. In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 292,710 students were enrolled in the nation’s 101 black colleges. That is an 11 percent decrease from the 325,224 in 2010.

Years ago, Delanie Mason’s 3.7 grade-point average at one of Georgia’s leading high schools would have made her a prized get at most black colleges in the country. Instead, it makes her tougher to get.

Kelsey Jones, a KSU senior who heads the African-American Student Alliance, looks back on her choice of schools with mixed feelings.

HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Delanie Mason and her sister Deja Mason, left, talk with a KSU football player during Kennesaw State University Housing Move-In day on Friday, August 11, 2017. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

“I considered an HBCU, but I was steered away from them because of the stigma attached,” Jones said. “People told me that if I attended an HBCU, I wouldn’t know how to fit into the real world. Now that I am older and know more about them, I wondered how I would have fared at an HBCU. But I did what was right for me at the time.”

Whether to attend an HBCU — especially for students who grew up in the South, where a majority of the schools are located — is a question black families continue to wrestle with as options become greater for talented students.

Like Delanie Mason, Kourtney George grew up with deep HBCU roots. Her parents started dating at Southern University, where her grandmother has worked for more than 30 years. But when it came time to pick a college, the Woodward Academy graduate had her sights set on Louisiana State University.

Her family wasn’t having it.

“I just believe in the mission of HBCUs and I am really wanted my daughter to go to one,” said her mother, Marci Chapman McKenna, who has degrees from Southern and Clark Atlanta University.

»MORE: How Kourtney George became #hurtbae and set the internet on fire with her vulnerablity

Kourtney visited 14 colleges and applied to seven, all of which, including Spelman College, accepted her. Kourtney set up a meeting with her parents and step-parents, who also attended HBCUs, to make her case for LSU.

“We know how competitive it is to get into Spelman and we were all in agreement that we wanted her to go there,” McKenna said. “We sat and listened and she made a great case for LSU. But at the end of the day, we told her that she had done everything we ever asked of her, but we didn’t think that she was equipped to make this decision. So she went to Spelman.”

It stuck, as she fully embraced Spelman.

As a freshman, she was a Morehouse cheerleader. As a junior she was on the SpelHouse Homecoming. She studied abroad twice in Turkey and Spain.

Kourtney graduated from Spelman in 2015 and now works in New York City.

No wrong decisions

In Delanie’s new dorm room, the new freshman tries to figure out where to put her bed while her sister unloads Delanie’s art supplies. Acrylics are Delanie’s medium and she can lose herself for days in a project.

She plans on majoring in fine arts and wants to go into animation.

Delanie graduated with honors from Mill Creek High School, one of the largest high schools in Georgia with close to 4,000 students and very high ACT and SAT scores. The school is 19 percent black and attracts students from posh nearby Hamilton Mill neighborhoods.

ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Delanie Mason, 18, who will attend KSU, and her sister Deja, 17, who wants to go to Spelman, during an interview at the family home on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Dacula. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

“Yes, I live in a white neighborhood and I went to a white school,” Delanie said. “So you get comfortable around it. Not that I didn’t welcome it. You just get used to it. I found a middle ground that was KSU. This is my decision.”

Her family ratified her choice. 

“Given Delanie’s background and personality, she would do better in an environment that she is comfortable in,” Donald Mason said. “Delanie has an artsy personality. One in tune with her feelings.”

That was not the case with his son, Trey, who started at Morehouse. Now studying architecture at Auburn, Trey was loud, aggressive and brimming with confidence. He was made for Morehouse, although it took him a while to acclimate to Auburn’s bigger campus and relatively small black population.

“Trey’s personality works in any type of situation. He can transform to what the environment is like,” Donald Mason said. “Delanie has a harder time adjusting.”

Trey’s college experiences and expenses also played a key role in Delanie’s choice of KSU. The family is facing more than $200,000 in student loans.

“HBCUs are too expensive,” Delanie said. “I understand the experience, but after dad put Trey through an expensive school, I thought maybe I should look for something cheaper.”

At KSU, the HOPE scholarship is paying 80 percent of Delanie’s tuition.

“The conversation was and is, you can go where you want to go,” Donald Mason said before turning to his daughter. “You shouldn’t feel bad because of what you want to do with your life and education. There was nothing wrong with your decision. But we appreciate it.”

‘Spelman is my first choice’

Her room is organized and Delanie has met each of her three suite mates. The family returns the large bin and rushes to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, before hurrying back to campus for a mandatory freshman meeting.

At the restaurant, Delanie and Deja tease and finish each other’s sentences. Teresa Walker-Mason said the sisters are close but very different. “Deja,” she says, “is more culturally aware and very down with the movement. Woke if you will.”

When they drop Delanie off for her freshman meeting, Deja, a senior at Mill Creek, will be the only kid left in the house. With a year to decide which way her higher education will go, she already knows which way she is leaning.

When she was younger, she wanted to be like her mother. Do everything she did. From being the queen of her college to meeting her future husband on campus.

“Spelman is my first choice,” Deja said. “I want to go to an HBCU. I have always been infatuated with the culture of an HBCU. The PWI experience is not in my blood. HBCU blood runs through me.”

Note: We began interviewing Delanie Mason in late summer. She has now finished her first semester at Kennesaw State and reports that she recorded a 4.0 grade-point average.