"A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste" – What It Means To Me

Do the words “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” mean anything special to you?

They do to me.

I was a 16 year-old high school senior in the spring of 1999. My high school on the island of Grand Bahama, in The Bahamas, had been visited by a dynamic recruiter, Fisk University Director of Admissions Anthony Jones. A Fisk alumnus, AJ believed passionately in Fisk; and he made me believe in Fisk too.

Still, I had no idea about if and how I was going to be able to turn my dreams of becoming a first-generation college graduate into a reality.

One humid afternoon, while sitting at home mindlessly watching a television program I’ve long since forgotten, I watched a commercial that I’ll never forget. A camera gently panned across a college classroom before settling on a single empty seat. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” said a warm baritone voice. I’m certain I’d seen UNCF commercials before and maybe even that one.

But in that moment, I knew immediately that the empty seat was mine. I had to attend college.

After a series of small miracles, I arrived at Fisk in the fall of 1999, one week later than my freshman cohorts. AJ had found a partial scholarship for me. He convinced my mother to believe in Fisk and in me too. If I didn’t succeed in my first semester, he said he’d personally send me back home.

I thank God he didn’t have to.

Even after AJ had left for other horizons, UNCF scholarships helped me be able to stay at Fisk where I thrived academically and grew personally.

I graduated Fisk with honors and went to Vanderbilt University on a full-ride for graduate school. Then, in May of last year, I was one of four blacks, all HBCU graduates, who walked across Vanderbilt’s stage to receive the first-ever Doctor of Philosophy degrees in history awarded to blacks in the history of the school.

It was a feat that I couldn’t have done alone. And I’ll always remember that AJ, Fisk and the UNCF’s motto gave me my start.

I am forever grateful.

And guess what? AJ’s back at Fisk, leading its admissions efforts to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of Fiskites. I have every confidence in his ability to make them believe in Fisk and in themselves too. After all, he convinced me.

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Bahamian-born "HBCUstorian" Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder of HBCUstory and an associate professor of history at Kentucky State University where she formerly directed the award-winning Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal. She a dynamic professional historian and a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is the convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. A passionate believer in the historic mission and future vision for HBCUs, her primary areas of specialization are black higher education and the civil rights struggle.