Twenty-five years—that’s how long it’s been since the first episode of A Different World aired on NBC. The Internet’s been standardized, the skyscraper bang has been beaten into obscurity and stars have blazed across the fickle stage of celebrity and fizzled, remembered only through the randomness of reality shows and VH1’s I Love the 90s. But after 25 years, A Different World is still relevant, not only because TV One so graciously continues to breathe life into its syndicated reruns, but because it was the only show to paint a realistic picture, for an entire generation of kids, of what life is like on a black campus. Many of them were the first in their families to even have a shot at going to college and some went on to serve their four years in the hallowed halls of higher education. I was one of them.

I am a product of the bluest collar family this side of the 47 percent. My grandfather worked in a steel mill. My grandmother worked in a factory. My mother works in a factory to this day. All but one of her five siblings, they all work in factories, too. And they made it quite clear, since I was old enough to be even remotely lucid, that the Harris legacy of manual labor was going to end with me. I liked to read, I had a natural curiosity and so I was groomed, good and early, to earn a degree on behalf of the whole blood line. No pressure.

But because none of the adults in my life had gone to college, I’d never even set foot on the grounds of one, much less understood the nuances of life there. I knew you went away—far, far away, depending on how much your parents got on your nerves—and I knew it cost a lot of money, since my fledging education savings was my mom’s reason for not buying me 8 Ball jackets, Adidas shelltoes and just about any other designer, brand name fashion trend during my impressionable adolescence. Those were some long years in cut-rate clothes, my social status making the sacrifice, yet I still wound up with student loans. I can’t quite figure out what happened.

A Different World was my window into post-secondary school autonomy and the wholeness of college life. I remember racing to get my homework done before 8 every Thursday so I could be an honorary Huxtable first and then, immediately thereafter, watch the episodic antics of Dwayne and Whitley, Kim and Jaleesa, Ron and Freddie. As a little kid struggling with the complexities of little hand/big hand time and decimal placement, campus life seemed so foreign and grown-up. The spontaneous step shows that broke out in front of The Pit, the deep, revealing classroom discussions about gender roles, AIDS and casual sex, the passionate, on-campus sociopolitical protests, the playful banter between the roommates and girls in the dorm, the occasional rap star cameo, and the guys, guys, guys—it all ruined me for anything else.

I applied to NYU just to say I got in and Temple because it was local, but I’m not even so sure I ever entertained much of anything but a black school. For six seasons, Hillman life had shaped my expectations and visions of the college experience. By the time my predominantly white high school years thankfully, finally, heaved their last few breaths, I was all set to enroll at Lincoln University, the first HBCU in the country and not completely unlike that fictional—but very realistic—Huxtable alma mater.

I got more than a classroom education there in the rolling hills of that little black school in the middle of the Pennsylvania backwoods. I scheduled my days around hot water outages, I exercised Buddhist-like patience in mile-long financial aid lines and I learned, good and fast, that you better save your papers every 10 minutes religiously, lest some shotty electrical setup obliterate the fruits of your labor and send you groveling at the doorstep of an unsympathetic professor’s office. (Even to this day, I’m compulsive with the control + S. Matter of fact, let me do it right now.)

That was the stuff they didn’t show you on A Different World, but I’m thankful for it. I look at folks crumbling at life’s little inconveniences and chuckle because I, like a lot of HBCU grads, have been fire baptized on the frontlines of the black college experience. It makes you both book and street smart, even if your closest street is a dirt road.

Watching A Different World now as an adult and an alum 25 years later yields, of course, a completely different set of observations than it did when I was just a kid with the legacy of my family propelling me academically. I notice now how hard the writers worked to balance the cast, to represent a wide swath of black folks—the rebels and the conservatives, the religious zealots and spiritual free spirits, the continental Africans and their westernized brethren—much like those who people the campuses of Grambling or Bennett or Tuskegee or Wilberforce. Some naysayers argue that there’s not enough diversity on black college campuses and some schools, balking under the pressure to pander to multiculturalism, have abandoned their distinction as a historically black college status and rebranded themselves to make grant funding and tuition dollars flow more easily. That’s like getting breast implants to fit into a DD rather than just wearing a bra that’s your size. Sad.

In contrast to The Cosby Show, beloved as it was and will probably always be, A Different World challenged us, brought to the fore the issues that were really being discussed not just in the black community but in intellectual spaces in general. It was funny and reflective, smart and silly at the same time. There’s talk of bringing it back, but I think it’s left well enough alone. You just don’t mess with characters like Whitley Gilbert and Freddie Brooks a quarter of a century after they fell off the sitcom map and expect to recreate that magic twice in a television lifetime. They’ve all moved on and so have we, but we’ll always have that Hillman nostalgia to look back on.

  • Leopardspots

    Love this! Proud alumna of Hampton here, would not trade those 4 years for anything!

  • Nasirah

    Not an alum of a HBCU but of a non-HBCU…same era…same sentiments. And I am still an avid watcher.

  • Danielle

    I loved this article. Two weeks ago I started watching the reruns on TV One and I agree with you completely. In fact, I posted on Facebook, and had many people agree, that sitcoms have devolved since. There is a deep abiding love that many have for that show, including me of course. I always watch the show right before falling asleep. After it is over, I drift off to sleep wishing, dreaming, that I had enrolled in an HBCU. I hope my children never make my mistake.

  • Shaquetta

    “I applied to NYU just to say I got in and Temple because it was local, but I’m not even so sure I ever entertained much of anything but a black school. For six seasons, Hillman life had shaped my expectations and visions of the college experience.”

    I thought it was just me….

    Even if A Different World doesn’t come back to television can we please get the DVD sets past the first season…..PLEASE!

  • Nire

    Proud Winston Salem State University Alum

  • Ma’at

    I loved A Different World and watched every episode. Our generation was blessed to have a show to watch to aspire to. I mistakenly thought my college experience was going to be the same among the black student body at a mainstream university. I was totally disppointed because I think the rich experience that I was seeking was only going to be found attending a HBCU. So many people who have attended HBCUs have told me that its a very unique experience and I’m glad that the show was able to capture that for many people who aspired to attend college. I agree that they shouldn’t try to bring it back…If they do…they have to have a great cast, with a great director like Debbie Allen to spearhead it. I think the production team hit the nail on the ball the first time with a Different World and they brought all the great elements together towards making a great show.

  • Melissa

    I love this show. Still watch it on centric.

  • LaNubiana

    Great article! I grew up watching the Cosby show and Different World in the 90s (I’m sure it was the reruns that aired here in Africa), I wanted to attend those school so badly :). I attended Addis Abeba University which is pretty much all black sense we don’t really have white folks here. However, my father was kind enough to allow me to attended Fisk University in 2005 for a year and then I got a chance to do part of my research at Meharry Medical College in 2011. I loved every bit of the time I spent in those schools.

  • Barbara

    The idea you mentioned Bennett made me smile. My cousin (more so a sister) graduated from there and her stories about life there and and being away from home solidified her in my mind as the epitome of strength and hometown girl made good.

  • Echo

    THIS!!!!! I applied to and was accepted at Howard, but by the end of the summer between graduating from high school and commencing my undergraduate studies I’d still not received any word about financial aid. So I called the school (for the umpteenth time) and was told there was no financial package for me. I was devastated! So off I went to school of choice #2–and I’d only applied to Howard and this other school. I figured I’d transfer to Howard after a year, but as it turned out I fell in love with my 2nd choice and stayed put. I definitely wish I’d had the HBCU experience, but don’t regret that it didn’t happen that way for me. But for sure, both “A Different World” and “School Daze” played a huge part in inspiring me to explore HBCUs. Then again, my dad is a Dillard and Howard grad and my mom attended Lincoln, my grandfather went to Tougaloo, my aunt, Texas Southern…

  • Amica

    Same here! Go Rams!

  • Cocochanel31

    I so wish I had gone to an HBCU! I hate when people say WEll life after college aint about all black people as if you won’t be able to cope in the “real world” I grew up in a diverse mainly white suburb my entire life, so four years around “my people” would’ve been great! All of my friends who went to HBCU’s are doing really well in their careers and in “real life” Oh least I still got a good education!

  • Mike

    Go Lincoln! It is the reason I am who I am today.

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  • therealtpayne

    I’m a proud graduate of an HBCU (University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff) and could totally relate to this article. A Different World was MY world for 4 years and I wouldn’t trade any of the experience for anything else. We must continue to financially support our nation’s HBCU’s and keep them relevant. It really wasn’t that long ago that Black people were prevented from attending college at all.

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  • Mike King

    Excellent! My son and I are both LU all the way! Great comments and you are right on target.

  • 2NatuRho

    Great article!! Watching “A Different World” definitely shaped my mindset as a child of the 90s..their was no other choice to experience but an HBCU experience! I am so very proud to say that I am an alum of Central State University (Wilberforce, OH) and that “A Different World” played a big help in my decision making and my college dream!

  • Deborah M

    I loved this show for all the reasons the writer states and more. True it should be left alone however, if the show could be done properly for today’s audience, portraying characters who overcome dropping out of high school and able to get to Hillman and earn doctorates, rise up, be and sound intelligent is really needed right now.

  • leslielou

    I went to Fisk University because I grew up in the suburbs and hadn’t gone to school with many African Americans. Watching a Different World and the Cosby show exposed me to the fact that there were universities out there so enriched with culture and nurturing to young black mind. I believe I made a great choice!

    I also find it funny that there are a number of schools that claim to be the “first” HBCU. Fisk states it is the first because we were the first to be accredited.

    Forever on the alter, Fisk Forever!

  • Essence Gant

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THIS! Everything about this post is so accurate of the HBCU experience! Those were the best years of my life! To have some of the brightest professors who actually care about you and your well-being outside of the classroom is one of the best feelings in the world! I went to undergrad at Albany State University in little ‘ol Albany, GA and NEVER have I had that much fun and gained that much knowledge anywhere else! I maintained my grades and was even crowned Miss Albany State Univ. my senior year! The Greek life (skee-wee to any of my Sorors), the cookouts for no reason other than it’s Monday and we’re bored, HOMECOMING, all-night studying in the dorms…GOOD TIMES! I remember when Obama won and the campus broke out into a celebration. For many of us, it was our first time voting and the first time our country had a Black president; it was special! I remember a professor of mine who was friends with Dr. King just burst into tears! We had parties and cookouts every day for a week! I will NEVER forget those times. They really helped shape me into the woman that I am now.
    I later went to grad school in Albany, NY (SUNY Albany) and recycled all of my old papers. I got A’s on them all because I was prepared! #TEAMHBCU!

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