For the quirky cast of ‘A Different World’, it’s back to school for a serious cause

A Cisco-sponsored tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities highlights their deep relevance and current challenges.
For the quirky cast of ‘A Different World’, it’s back to school for a serious cause

From its premiere in 1987, “A Different World” was no ordinary TV sitcom.

Set at a fictionalized Virginia campus called Hillman College, it highlighted the importance and promise of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). And amid the fun hijinks of its quirky characters, it tackled some of the major issues impacting the African American community, from AIDS and homelessness to racism and gun violence.

Above all, it inspired a generation of kids to dream high and seek out like-minded learning communities where they could discover and nurture their talents.

Those dreams are alive and well at dozens of HBCUs, which are famous for alumni like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, and Vice President Kamala Harris. And which, despite some current challenges, are as relevant today as ever.

So, too, is “A Different World.” This has been underscored by cheering throngs of students — not yet born when the show first aired — as they meet the original cast on a Cisco-sponsored tour of HBCUs. 

“For all of us involved with the show, it’s an amazing gift,” said Darryl Bell, who played Ron Johnson Jr. on the show. “Every day, someone will say to us, ‘I am a doctor because I watched “A Different World” or ‘I was going through an experience, and it helped me get through it’. The fact that the show continues to impact people's lives thirty-five years later, no one could have imagined it.”

Helping kids — and schools — thrive in a new era

The “Different World” tour is hoping to reach a fundraising goal of $1 million in scholarships, while offering career counseling, technology, and financial advice. Along the way, it’s calling out the budget, housing, and other issues facing many of these schools, while showcasing all they offer a new generation of students.

Cisco is the premier sponsor of the tour, but it’s not new to supporting HBCUs. Its 2020 Social Justice Initiative included a $150 million pledge to HBCUs, including donations of technology and expertise. And it offers IT skills training and certifications at the schools through its Networking Academy.

“Cisco has seriously leaned into HBCUs and minority-serving institutions all over the world,” said Shaunya Ishmael, who leads Cisco's commitment to HBCUs on behalf of its Social Justice Action Office. “It’s uplifting to me how Cisco is not just writing checks; it’s forming true partnerships with these schools.”

For Ishmael, the HBCU cause is personal. She earned degrees in physics and electrical engineering from Clark Atlanta University, which the tour visited late last month, and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., where it will stop in April. And she credits the schools for the positive direction her life has taken.

“The experience really shaped who I am,” Ishmael said. “It allowed me to find my place in the world and my purpose.”

Additional inspiration came from “A Different World,” especially the engineering student Dwayne Wayne, played by Kadeem Harrison.

“When the tour made its Atlanta stop,” she said, “I told him he was my idol when I was in college, because I wanted to be an engineer.”

New tech for current and future challenges

One challenge facing HBCUs is outdated digital infrastructure. Modern education demands the best in connectivity, security, and bandwidth. And government funding depends on meeting new cybersecurity standards, further stretching IT budgets.

"A lot of those schools are understaffed in terms of their IT organizations,” explained Scott McGregor, director of Cisco’s Social Justice Action Office. “They’re trying to do network and security updates, and their focus should be on the students. So, that’s one area where we are taking the load off them, by helping them get their infrastructure up to speed, and getting certified without having to pay a premium for it. In many cases, that’s $12 million that won’t go into redeploying infrastructure and can go into other things they need.”

The Cisco partnership — and common sense of purpose — resonate deeply with the “Different World” cast.

“It makes it easy when you find partners who are genuine and doing things for the right reasons,” Bell said. “Because our primary focus for doing this is the students. To engage with students now who are not only in college but also to attract high school students to make the decision to go to college.”

Ishmael called HBCUs a “unique environment,” where students can learn and grow in a family-like environment. And she sees their importance never waning.

“As a young African American person,” she said, “you can be free to explore who you are, what your purpose is in the world. So, it's really to me a very unique environment. I don't think there'll ever be a point in time where that is not relevant. Because we bring a different voice to the workplace, to society, and that voice needs to be heard.”

That relevance is present even in the White House, where the tour has been invited to visit. But most important is that the message — of the show and the schools — continues to reach kids.

A new generation appears ready to listen. As one Clark Atlanta University student told NBC, “A Different World” inspired her mother to attend an HBCU decades ago. Today, the family legacy continues.

"‘A Different World’ planted that seed in my mom," she said, "and that same seed has now been planted in me."