As a Clark Atlanta University student, Kennedy Whisenant, 21, does not take it for granted that she’s enrolled in a historically Black university or college. She grew up watching the adventures of students at the fictional Hillman College on Cosby Show spin-off A Different World and says the environment at Clark Atlanta University isn’t far off. Between her professors and being a proud member of the Alpha Pi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, her college experience has nurtured her and provided her with a robust support system. She’s found her village during her time there.
Now she wants HBCUs to receive more investment, funding, classroom necessities, financial aid and recognition. “I wish we were recognized for more than just our bands and Greek life because we are so much more,” Whisenant says. “I just wish more people knew that we're here. We are a powerhouse, and we are people to be reckoned with. We can run with any predominantly white institution.”
When she graduates with the CAU class of 2023, she hopes to use her degree in fashion design to break down barriers for those with disabilities. Whisenant plans to open a storefront for prom and pageant dresses, creating practical and flattering clothing for breast cancer survivors, inspired by her mother’s own survivor journey. Whisenant sees how easy it is to take for granted being able to walk into a store and find clothes that combine function and fashion, and she wants to make sure those with disabilities can look their best.
Whisenant also became the second African American woman to win Miss Collegiate America in 2022. She uses her national platform, BRAVE (Building Respect and Values for Everyone), to spread the message of antibullying. She trains teachers and administrators on how they can adequately handle situations in the classroom, making sure they can properly spread an antibullying message. Whisenant says she herself faced bullying when she was younger due to an eye injury, and the experience fuels her passion for this platform.
“I want to ensure that for the next generation, no one has to experience what I’ve gone through,” Whisenant says. “It definitely fuels my motivation. I believe that it keeps me humble as well. I am sharing my life experience with you. I’m being just as vulnerable.”
Below, get to know one of the 2022 Glamour College Women of the Year: Kennedy Whisenant.
Glamour: What does it mean to you to attend a historically Black college?
Kennedy Whisenant: My HBCU has provided me with a safe space where I’m able to fully, creatively be myself. I’m able to experience African American culture at its peak. I’m able to be around like-minded individuals who are all striving for greatness in a world where sometimes our greatness is stalled or blocked. Getting into the history of HBCUs, if you think about why they were created, that means a lot as well. We had to create spaces for us to be able to flourish, and those spaces were not available at that time. So that means a lot to me to continue to carry on my ancestors’ legacies. I am their biggest dream.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about HBCUs?
That we exist. As someone who has been “the first African American” in a lot of areas of life, I can say that HBCUs are not acknowledged or they’re not known about. I’ll always tell people, “I go to an HBCU,” and they’ll say, “What’s that?” Sometimes I get frustrated because we really are a hidden gem and we have people that attend these universities, graduate from these universities, that go on to be legends, and there are so many people here who are deserving of acknowledgement. Even our professors are worthy of getting their flowers while they’re here. They form us and mold us and shape us into the people that we are.
Has there been a teacher or professor at Clark Atlanta who has had a particular impact on you?
Too many to count. From the staff to the administration, I have truly been blessed with not only people who will remain in my life forever, but family. These are relationships that will carry me even outside of this campus. They don’t just care about my GPA, but they care about my well-being and mental health. They’re pouring into me and making sure that Kennedy is a better person when she leaves here. Yes, the degree is the main goal, but they want to make sure that, in my matriculation from Clark Atlanta University, Kennedy is the best version of herself when she walks across the stage.
You’re interested in creating both practical and flattering clothing for breast cancer survivors. What inspired you to do that?
Before I graduated high school, my mother was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. I’m an only child, and my mom is a single parent; she adopted me at two days old. I saw her go through things physically, mentally, and spiritually. I saw the effect that it had on her and also witnessed the effect that it had on me, without even knowing it. Looking back, I realized that when my mom was hurting, I was hurting. When she was in pain, I was in pain.
After the double mastectomy, we were struggling to find clothing that makes her feel good again, that gives her confidence and makes her feel feminine. I think that we take for granted the womanly shape, and when those things were taken away, my mom had a harder time regaining her confidence in her femininity. I want to create clothing so that people with all disabilities can be able to look at themselves in the mirror and love what they see.
When do you feel the most beautiful?
Probably when I’m competing in a pageant. It’s not so much the makeup, the hair, and the dresses, but it’s me being authentically myself and putting my heart on the stage and allowing people to see me for me. When I’m advocating for things that I want to see a change in, when I’m consistently inspiring people and sharing my experiences and my stories so proudly, that’s what makes me feel beautiful. Being able to know that I can help someone else out, or I can make someone else’s day brighter. Just being able to be that light for someone.
What is one misconception that people have about pageantry?
That it’s all about outer beauty. Pageantry is all about multifaceted women who just want to invoke change. You pick a mission or a cause that is near and dear to your heart, and pageants are just using the platform to be able to reach those individuals you may not be able to reach. Yes, we do photo shoots, we ride in cars in parades, and we have sponsor deals and things like that, but it’s so much bigger than that. People think we are all against each other. That’s not the case; we’re just a family. We’re just a village of people that want to change the world. No matter who is wearing the crown, no matter who has the title, we just want to see that the change is done.
How do you celebrate yourself?
Through my clothes! Through my sense of style and my fashion. That’s my time to myself. Do I want to be edgy, a little more girly, athletic, or casual? Picking clothes out for the day and matching the way I feel with what I’m putting on my body, that’s pretty much how I celebrate myself. I love getting my hair done, getting my nails done. Just taking care of me.
How would you describe this chapter of your life? What chapter do you hope comes next?
This season for me is really big on God’s timing and everything I’ve been working for just coming to fruition. Things that I have spent years working on are finally happening. It’s just a very beautiful season. The season that I hope to see is one of other people reaping what they have sown. I want the next season of my life to be me in a position where I can give back and be a blessing to other people. In the future I would love to be able to come back and give out a couple scholarships. I would love to buy my mom a home and retire my mom so that she doesn’t have to work anymore. I would love to be able to experience things with my closest friends and family and be able to give them things that they’ve never had before.