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Hillman Takes Over Howard!

Howard University Celebrates “A Different World,” for Popularizing HBCU Culture on Television.

by Sholnn Freeman (MA '12, PHD '21)
A different world tour at Howard

The cast of “A Different World,” talked to Howard student on April 9, 2024. Photo by Justin D. Knight

With flat-out enthusiasm, Howard University celebrated the cast of “A Different World,” the critically acclaimed and top-rated show that prompted audiences worldwide to fall in love with HBCUs.  

On April 9, 2024, much of the main cast – Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Dawnn Lewis, Cree Summer, Charnele Brown, Darryl Bell and Glynn Turman reminisced about the iconic television series in Cramton Auditorium. They were joined by Howard alumna Karen Malina White, comedian Sinbad, and show co-producer and Howard alumna Debbie Allen who participated remotely. The stars kicked off the “A Different World HBCU College Tour 2024” at Atlanta University Center. One of the main aims of the tour is to raise scholarship funds for prospective HBCU students.  

“Retrospective love, I have to say, it’s the best kind of love,” said Jasmine Guy, who portrayed the show’s bougie southern belle, Whitley Gilbert.  

A Dififerent World tour
A packed auditorium at Cramton included cardboard heads of the characters from “A Different World”

“A Different World” was a spin-off of “The Cosby Show” and followed students at Hillman College, a fictional HBCU in Virginia. Cast members said real experiences inspired the series, many of which were drawn from Howard University.  

Allen, who participated via a video link, referred to Howard as “the blueprint for ‘A Different World,’ if anything was.” Cast members expressed gratitude to Allen for encouraging them to write and direct episodes and doing everything possible to become members of Hollywood directors and writers’ guilds before leaving the show. 

“A Different World” is credited with increasing awareness and enrollment for HBCUs nationwide, inspiring more students to choose HBCUs for their college experience.  According to a CNN report, HBCU enrollment jumped 26% between 1976 and 1994, with nearly all of the increase occurring between 1986 and 1994. “A Different World” aired from 1987 until 1993. 

Howard University President Ben Vinson III spoke about watching the show as a high school student, often organizing his homework schedule to make sure he didn’t miss it.  

“You spurred a profound interest into everything our historically Black colleges and universities have to offer,” Vinson told the cast members. “Even 35 years later, there are undergraduates on our campuses who cite ‘A Different World’ as a reason for considering pursuing an HBCU education.”  

A Different World cast
The cast of "A Different World" with Howard University President Ben Vinson III

Jeannisa Glover, a senior studying legal communication, said the show was a staple in her household while growing up in Miami.  

“Both my parents attended HBCUs, so they made sure I watched shows that had HBCU representation,” Glover said. “They just kind of turned it on when I was maybe six or seven. The show put Black people and HBCUs in the forefront, and the topics they discussed are still relevant today.”  

Both “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” were ratings juggernauts, often appearing in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the weekly Nielson charts. Besides impacting enrollment, "A Different World” helped educate television audiences on controversial topics, such as date rape and the HIV/AIDs epidemic, which was at the time taking the lives of people working on the show. It also aired a show on the eve of the Iraq War in the early 1990s that was meant as commentary on the impact of war on Black young people – many of whom are often endangered on the frontlines when the U.S. gets into military conflicts.   

“We had great writers. They put us in positions to have conversations about things I didn’t expect to see,” said Kadeem Hardison, who played Dwayne Wayne. “On date rape, I never had that conversation with my father. To have it on television in front of the world was really special.” 

The show has been widely acknowledged for broadening the world of Black representation in popular media, especially in its portrayal of Black young people. For example, Dwayne Wayne was a math tutor, member of the baseball and track teams, and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. Charnele Brown, who played Kimberly Reese, was a straight-A medical student who participated in many campus clubs including a sorority. Brown addressed what it has meant to have positively portrayed a dark-skinned young woman on a popular and iconic television show. 

“I am so overwhelmed about representing the chocolate sisters; I didn’t know I was doing it at the time,” she said to an applauding Cramton audience. “Now I want to thank you all so much for the love.” 

“A Different World HBCU College Tour” at Howard University was sponsored  by Cisco, Wells Fargo, the Student Freedom Initiative, and Minds Matter. The tour is scheduled to make stops at 10 HBCUs in the coming months.  

This story appears in the Spring/ Summer 2024 issue.
Article ID: 2081

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