Unprecedented Initiative: “Unapologetically Free” Centers Mental Health at HBCUs and other Black Colleges

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Roy Betts UNCF Communications 240.703.3384 roy.betts@uncf.org

Offering customized programs and opportunities to support mental health on Black college campuses

Today UNCF (United Negro College Fund), The Steve Fund and Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) launched an unprecedented national effort, “Unapologetically Free: Centering Mental Health on Black College Campuses.”

Unapologetically Free includes a customized set of culturally responsive programs and opportunities to support mental health on Black college campuses, including:

  • A series of virtual workshops designed for students, faculty and staff, starting this month
  • A virtual student conference to be held in April
  • Sessions in July at UNITE 2023: UNCF Summit for Black Higher Education; and
  • A first-of-its-kind mental health research survey focused mental health of Black college students

Programming for the workshops and student conference is led by the Steve Fund, a premier nonprofit promoting mental health and emotional well-being for young people of color.

“HBCUs have always been shelters in the storm for Black students, especially in uncertain times,” said UNCF President and CEO Dr. Michael L. Lomax. “This initiative offers our entire Black higher education community an opportunity to learn from participating Black colleges while enhancing the practices that make our students free to focus on their well-being.”

Unapologetically Free is designed to respond to a rise in mental health challenges among college students across the country. In 2021, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for one or more mental health problems, a jump of nearly 50% since 2013. A survey conducted by UNCF and the Steve Fund last year reported that an overwhelming majority of students, faculty and staff at HBCUs want to be informed about resources to support mental health on their campuses.

President and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund Dr. Harry L. Williams announced that his organization would support outreach on the effort and said that he hopes the impact of Unapologetically Free will be felt at the nation’s Black colleges and universities and beyond.

“By engaging our partner institutions, our intent is to help evolve mental health approaches at HBCUs while helping them lead a national conversation on the mental health needs of Black students in higher education,” Dr. Williams said. “HBCUs have always worked to meet students where they are, and higher education would be well served to learn from their example.”

Evan Rose, president of the board at the Steve Fund, said the initiative has been designed intentionally to amplify the voices, perspectives and experiences of students on Black college campuses, and to build on the community support that already exists on Black college campuses as they respond to stigma, societal barriers and lack of equitable access to resources and care.

“The Steve Fund’s mental health experts will highlight the ways to further focus on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of HBCU students,” Rose said. “We are following the lead of Black college student leaders, faculty and administrators who have stewarded safe, racially affirming higher education spaces for decades.”

UNCF’s leadership on this initiative is spearheaded by its Institute for Capacity Building’s Strategy Development team, which is directed by Julian Thompson. Since the start of the pandemic UNCF has coordinated activities to support student engagement, well-being and sense of belonging, including a national coaching campaign for entering, first-year and stop-out students.

“We seek to activate leaders on Black college campuses, uncover insights and promising practices, and develop innovative strategies that will help further their institutional transformation,” Thompson said. “Through Unapologetically Free, our partners and UNCF can make an even greater impact on student, faculty and staff mental health at HBCUs and beyond.”

This week, Unapologetically Free will begin to administer a customized Black college module of the Health Minds Study, the longest-standing, most comprehensive research survey on mental health in higher education. Dr. Jaffus Hardrick, president of Florida Memorial University, one of the first HBCUs to promote the study, said HBCUs are coming together as a community to respond to student needs.

“We know our students, many of whom are the first from their families to pursue higher education, confront challenges that can feel overwhelming at times,” Dr. Hardrick said. “Unapologetically Free couldn’t be more timely in offering all HBCUs an opportunity to expand on the tools and practices that make our communities resilient.”

More information on upcoming workshops, conferences and research efforts can be found at unapologetically-free.org.


About UNCF and the Institute for Capacity Building

UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization, supports students’ education and development through scholarships and other programs, strengthens its 37 member colleges and universities, and advocates for minority education. UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building partners with Black higher education institutions to support their transformation and continual innovation—all to propel student success, community advancement and the fight for educational equity and racial justice. Each year ICB organizes UNITE, the most influential gathering on Black higher education. Learn more at uncficb.org. Join us at uncfunite.org.

About The Steve Fund

The Steve Fund’s mission is to promote the mental health and emotional wellbeing of young people of color as they transition from adolescence into higher education, throughout their higher education experience, and as they transition into the workforce so that they can lead healthy lives; attain personal, academic, and career success; and realize their full potential. The Steve Fund’s HBCU Initiative partners with HBCU organizations, students, and colleges to improve mental health by providing customized resources and programs and increasing capacity of faculty and staff to support emotional well-being of HBCU students. For more information, visit thestevefund.org.

About Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Established in 1987, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund is the nation’s largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. TMCF member-schools include the publicly-supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs). Publicly-supported HBCUs enroll over 80% of all students attending HBCUs. Through scholarships, capacity building and research initiatives, innovative programs, and strategic partnerships, TMCF is a vital resource in the K-12 and higher education space.