For many, the decision of whether and where you attend college is heavily influenced by location, reputation, academics, and sometimes, the relationships in one’s life. In some instances, student applicants already have their minds made up before they’ve logged onto the admissions portal to apply. In the case of junior Alana Smith, Bison blood courses through her veins. Whether or not she was ready to accept, it was a given–Howard University was where she belonged.
The television and film major, and business administration minor from Sacramento, California, heard the name “Howard University” since the beginning of her time, thanks in no small part to the five HU Alum in her life. Smith’s family ties began with her parents, who both graduated in 2002. Her mother, a finance major in the School of Business (SOB); and her father, a graduate of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications (CHSOC), instilled in Smith the importance of attending a historically Black college or university, with obvious bias and heavy references to Howard.
It was not long before Smith’s parents – Chanel Stafford and Kevin Smith – met who would soon become the godparents to their firstborn, Monae Petty-Owens and Rahman Cooper. With three marketing majors, one radio, television, and film, and one studying health sciences, the family-to-be quickly gravitated toward one another and found themselves inseparable and in love with the university.
FAMILY PORTRAIT: A collage of photographs featuring Alana Smith’s alumni family during their years at Howard. (from top left to bottom right) Monae Petty-Owens and Chanel Stafford – Smith’s godmother; Chanel Stafford and Kevin Smith (Alana’s parents) pictured at their 2002 commencement ceremony; Chanel Stafford pictured with her School of Business degree, and Kevin Smith photographed with his father in individual photos following their 2002 commencement; (bottom center) Stafford and Rahman Cooper — Alana Smith’s godfather — at their 2002 commencement ceremony; (bottom right) Chanel Stafford (white jacket), Alana Smith’s aunt, Kamilah Johnson (left of Stafford), and Monae Petty-Owens (far right) pictured with a group of friends. Photos courtesy of Alana Smith.
“Growing up, I just remember my parents always sharing how they’ve stayed connected with their friends…[they talked about] attending an HBCU and how important it is to go to one because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be around people that look like you and to actually be and feel like a majority in your environment,” Smith said.
She continued, “I feel like [my mom] really taught me that it’s okay to want to see different things in different cultures and be in a different environment when it comes to learning.”
With a strong support system, Smith was able to venture out and explore the possibility of other schools besides Howard. Initially, she considered attending any prestigious university before she began to understand “the power of an HBCU.” The future Bison spent a great deal of time as a child touring Washington and getting a preview of all things Howard. She recalls going on visits to the Mecca as early as the age of nine. Smith smiled as she recounted the faded memories through the lens of her family and younger self.
Despite her fond childhood memories, it took a lot of research, in-depth conversations, and inspiration from the overflow of celebrated alumni, for Smith to find herself moved to join the Bison family. Naturally, the great influences of Black culture in her life also played a pivotal role in shaping the idea of Howard and HBCUs in a way that deeply resonated with her. It was not long before she was officially ready to pursue her generational destiny, now often joking with friends that she was quite literally “born a Bison.”
MANIFESTATION AT ITS FINEST: 11-year-old Alana Smith visited Howard University on a trip with her family in 2012. Photo courtesy of Alana Smith.
“Being exposed to that D.C. culture and having family [members] who are alumni, that could take me to where they used to go to school… That influence was very instrumental because I got to see from our own eyes: Black people in one place. I feel like at that age, it was a culture shock,” said Smith. “Being able to see [that] is like ‘Wow, look at all these people that are getting an education.’ I found myself in my own spirit, I was like, ‘No, Howard is where I’m meant to be.’”
Though she originally applied to Howard as an acting major, Smith switched gears and embraced a new career path: filmmaking. The decision did not come lightly, as acting had been a dream since she was in the sixth grade. Nevertheless, she envisioned a future where she could prioritize authenticity and have creative control in her profession. Smith notes that her father’s experience in SOC helped her get a better understanding of the different creative outlets and possibilities that the school has to offer. By the time students returned to campus post-lockdown, Smith was proudly reppin’ her television and film concentration, and on the heights to pursue even more greatness within SOC—a leadership role.
As a 2002 graduate, Smith’s aunt, Kamilah Johnson, stayed booked and busy during her time at HU. The legacy student mentioned that her aunt was very involved on campus, serving consecutively as Miss College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences (CNAHS) for two years. For Smith, the stories of involvement and leadership stuck out to her and made her role in student government feel that much more significant. Currently, Smith proudly serves as the President of the CHSOC S.H.I.N.E. council and was recently re-elected for a second presidential term. She continues to find motivation in knowing that her aunt embraced the journey of a student leader and was able to have an impact on her peers.
BISON TRADITIONS: Alana Smith’s aunt, Kamilah Johnson, pictured with the elected representatives for a few of the schools and colleges at Howard University. Johnson was elected ‘Miss CNAHS’ (for the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences) two years in a row. Photo courtesy of Alana Smith.
According to Smith, in some ways, the scene at Howard has hardly changed from when her mother used to wander the halls of SOB. While climate change and gentrification certainly did a number on certain elements of the district – compared to the late ‘90s, hectic snow days are at a minimum, and the streets of the district are somewhat safer and more kid-friendly – there are a few things that have remained constant: campus traditions, residence halls, and the Howard run-around.
Smith explained how the Yard has always been a sacred ground for socialization and gathering on a warm day, as well as the consistency in homecoming activities and preparations. Where administration and construction are concerned, she recognizes that those are two areas that haven’t seen much improvement, yet still represent notable memories associated with Howard. For example, Howard Plaza East Towers is considered a special place, since that’s where Stafford and Petty-Owens met and lived together.
In noting some recognizable changes, she spoke of the difference in the fashion culture–that is, coming to class dressed in your Sunday best all five days of the week. While Smith joked about her parents emphasizing the need to flaunt your style back in the day, she acknowledged the possibility that COVID-19 may have had more of a lasting effect on the University’s culture and environment in more recent years. “When it comes to how the students party, how we interact post-COVID…how we show up to class… I just feel like the energy back in the 1980s to early 2000s was very rich. There were more people or celebrities that would show up on a random day. And it just felt like that time period was very instrumental in what made Howard what Howard is today. And now that it’s post-COVID, we have online classes; we have things that are a hybrid option. I just feel that it takes away from the in-person and the learning experience.”
YARD FLICKS: Old pictures of Monae Petty-Owens and friends on the Yard in 2000. Photo courtesy of Alana Smith
In all, Smith owes much gratitude to the beloved University. She credits the guidance and influences of her family for helping her see “the magic that Howard possesses,” specifically making note of her bond with her mom over the shared collegiate journey. While they both experienced – arguably – two different versions of Howard, the Bison at heart both hold fond memories of their college lives and the opportunities for growth and empowerment that came with it. When reflecting on the time Stafford visited campus last fall, Smith talked about what a meaningful moment that was to share with her mother:
“The word that pops in my head is duality; but it was just a reflection of each other, a reflection of what Howard meant to us, and what it’s done for us so far. We took pictures; we wore matching HU crewnecks….to show our graduation years. It was a monumental moment because she completed her education and graduated. And then for me to be at her alma mater and about to graduate next year. It’s just like nothing that can really top that moment.
“My mom raised me as a single mother, so it’s like everything that she has done for me and has poured into me is finally coming to light. Being able to do that at Howard is one of the biggest ways that I can pay her back,” Smith smiled.
KODAK MOMENT: Alana Smith and her mother, Chanel Stafford, pose in matching HU crewnecks on the Yard to celebrate their Howard legacy in November 2022. Stafford graduated Class of 2002, while Smith is set to graduate in the spring of 2024. Photo courtesy of Alana Smith.
Smith stands as a proud Bison, determined to maintain the family history and uplift Howard’s name as she goes on. She looks forward to expanding the legacy tradition by encouraging her own future bloodline to take a chance on the Mecca, or any HBCU (although, she already has a cousin in her freshman year upholding the family tradition as a business marketing major). In the meantime, though, Smith will continue to find the shining light and pursue the same Bison greatness of the many in her family that came before her.
PROUD BISON: Alana Smith and Chanel Stafford strut and fascinate in a graduation photo shoot following Smith’s acceptance and decision to attend Howard in May 2020. Smith headlined the photoshoot and revealed the college decision with “The legacy continues…” Photo courtesy of Alana Smith.