A Different World turns 31: How it impacted HBCUs

Kennedi Williams|Staff Writer

The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World premiered Sept. 24, 1987. The show began with Denise Huxtable, played by Lisa Bonet, attending her parents’ alma mater, Hillman College, which was based off of historically black colleges and universities.

Although Hillman was a completely fictional HBCU, its impact was very real and still resonates with many today. After Bonet’s exit from the show, Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), two totally opposite characters, ended up getting into a relationship. This attracted the attention of millions of viewers who tuned in every week to see this unlikely couple and their friends navigate college life.

From the start, A Different World was created in order to give the world a different look at HBCUs and, during the second season, it really began to do that.

The second season is when television producer Debbie Allen joined the team. She immediately decided that the show had to take on social issues and politics.

Essence reported on how Allen took the show and, with her experiences from Howard University and frequent visits to Spelman and Morehouse, transformed the script from a show about students “who ‘happened to be black’ at a school that ‘happened to be to an HBCU’ to a show about black students at a black college, dealing with real issues.”

A Different World broke stereotypes and went against the belief that successful television shows were not allowed to speak up on social and political issues.

Hampton University junior Jordyn Edwards spoke on how the show really made her want to be immersed in HBCU culture.

“I went to a predominantly white school,” the strategic communications major said. “And when I started watching this show, I just knew I wanted to be able to experience all those things. There’s nothing like an HBCU experience.”

A Different World is not only seen “as the single most important cultural achievement” for historically black colleges and universities in all of American history, according to the Huffington Post, but is also seen as a huge cultural achievement for African Americans.

It helped expose not only the social construct of an HBCU but also the value. It displayed the importance of black colleges on a large scale that influenced young African Americans across the country to attend HBCUs.

A Different World really helped to show some of the great things that come with attending an HBCU,” said Alyssa Stephenson, a freshman architecture major at Hampton. “The show helps show students the relationships they can build with other kids that look like them but come from all different backgrounds.”

Dawnn Lewis, the actress who played Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, told NBC, “People are watching the show that weren’t even born when we were filming the show. Kids that were born in [1990]-whatever or 2000 whatever are now saying that the show motivates and inspires them. There are websites, all kinds of fan sites asking that we reboot the show, bring the show back. … It’s humbling.”

Overall, A Different World made an impact that is still felt today. After the show’s premiere, there was an increase in African American enrollment at both historically black colleges and predominantly white institutions.

Turning on the television and seeing black kids in college was not something that was common in the ’80s and is not something that is much more common now. One can log on to any social media and see the effect A Different World has on today’s generation.

From merchandise to artwork, the stamp of Hillman University will forever be left on society.

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