On January 28, 2004, BET’s College Hill became the first Black reality TV show ever. Embarking on an unprecedented journey in television, The Edmonds Entertainment-produced docuseries amplified the experience of Black students at historically Black colleges and universities across the country. Patterned from previous TV hits like MTV reality show Real World and sitcom A Different World, this particular unscripted phenomenon granted unbridled access to what thousands of Black students were experiencing in the halls of safe, collegiate spaces such as Southern University, Langston University and Virginia State University.
The result of the show is an everlasting impact on Black television culture. You may have tuned into the inaugural season on day one, heard about the fight between Krystal and Vanessa that left critics stunned and outraged, or often use the meme of Kyle eating his ribs. For better or worse, these wild and hilarious moments captivated audiences, leaving them to savor the first morsels of unscripted Black college life on TV.
In honor of the 15th anniversary of the show’s premiere, Shadow And Act spoke with executive producers Tracey Edmonds and Michael McQuarn, BET Corporate Communications Director Tosha Whitten-Griggs (2000-2008) and four cast mates: Kinda (neé Andrews) Saunders (Season 1), Anya Holland (Season 3), Willie McMiller (Season 4) and Ray Cunningham (Season 3).
Cast of “College Hill” season one, including Kinda Saunders | Courtesy of BET
The brainchild of Edmonds, College Hill was an ambitious creative concept she took to BET. And the rest is history.
Tracey Edmonds, Executive Producer: My production company had done Soul Food, the TV series, our first TV project, and some other indie films, and we started brainstorming about going creatively into the non-scripted side of things. College Hill was the very first reality show ever on BET. I remember calling Stephen Hill who was the President of Programming at the time and suggesting that they get into the reality TV show game. It was an experiment for BET, so Stephen scraped together $800,000 for an entire season, 13 episodes, which is crazy. I had done indie films before like Hav Plenty with Chris Cherot, so I asked him to come on as director for the first season and we ended up doing this whole first season at Southern University with a skeleton crew. No real story producers or no real editors. We had no movie for set design or hair and makeup.
The first season was so gritty and low-budget, but it was all about the personalities that we chose and it popped. We had eight kids that had different, strong personalities and we didn’t have the glamour of a beautiful house for them to go to. It was just really parking ourselves on Southern University for six weeks straight and following these eight kids’ stories unfold.
Ray Cunningham, College Hill Season 3 | Courtesy of Ray Cunningham
Eight diverse individuals—four young women and four young men from a myriad of backgrounds —were thoroughly vetted then selected to join the cast.
TE: Every single year, I was the one that went to the college campuses. We wanted to know everyone’s backstory. “What’s your vision for your life? What are your goals?” And then, of course, typical casting procedure is asking, “What are the things that get on your nerves? Who are you dating?” When you cast a reality show right, you don’t have to script it. We never ever scripted College Hill. Since reality shows have evolved, I can tell what’s scripted. We were so old school and intricately involved in the casting process that the stories unfolded because of the characters that we put into the house.
Tosha Whitten-Griggs, BET Corporate Communications, BET: I wasn’t involved in the daily production, but I was on the set when we would invite the press. It’s funny because I had to style the kids out of their own closets. I didn’t have a budget. We pulled two or three looks and found locations on campus that were free, but we came out with some really amazing images.
I somehow became the den mother of sorts for these kids. I still keep in touch with all of these kids from different seasons, because unlike production, in PR, we continue the relationships because we’re working with them to rollout the show.
Kinda Saunders, Season 1 – Southern University: I was randomly walking on campus when two of my friends said they were going to audition for some show in the student union. I had no idea the show was happening, and I tagged along out of curiosity. Honestly, as an incoming freshman, everything was novel. I was just eager to be involved with exciting things on campus. I didn’t take the audition process very seriously because I’d heard they already filmed a pilot & the show was just looking to cast an upperclassman, sorority girl, and I really did not fit that criteria.
Within 5 minutes of leaving the audition room, my phone rang and it was the director telling me that they 100 percent wanted to add me as the final cast member. The crew was always pretty laid back and friendly, although one camera guy did come and ask me if I would consider taking my castmate Jabari’s virginity! I was pretty offended that he thought I was so gullible and that I would even consider that but I know some people in this industry try to get as much as they can for the sake of the shock value, so I wasn’t completely surprised.
Ray Cunningham, Season 3 – Virginia State University: Auditions had actually already started on campus for College Hill before I was asked to audition by the former Dean of Student Affairs and Tracey Edmonds. The show wasn’t as popular yet, but I was familiar with the concept and figured that it was my best chance of being on TV considering nothing like this ever happens in Virginia. The audition process wasn’t stressful, I just remember it being like a therapy session. We started off in large groups talking about our experiences on campus and each time, the groups became smaller and smaller until it was one-on-one interviews with Tracey.
Anya Holland, Season 3 – Virginia State University: I went with one of my dance sisters who was auditioning and a producer heard me talking and pulled me in to audition. Tracey was very cool. It just felt like I was talking to a normal person.
Willie McMiller, Season 4, University of Virgin Islands: This executive producer on the show named Michael McQuarn, who was Tracey Edmonds’ little brother, asked me if I would be interested, so I jumped ahead versus the audition process that a lot of other people had to do. But I still had to meet Tracey.
Life On Camera
Twenty-four-seven surveillance revealed more than just college debauchery and academics.
RC: The first month it was exciting to have a camera crew follow you around on campus, but eventually, it got annoying. I remember us taking our mic packs off and hiding on campus from the crew. Our friends were avoiding us because they didn’t want their conversations recorded. It was a struggle for me at first because I knew what they wanted: me discussing my sexuality or some kind of on-camera action with a guy. I wasn’t fully “out” and times were different back then. I was so concerned with embarrassing my family with my secret. How could it not disrupt my focus on academics?
We had promotional trips in the spring semester, so we were traveling up to NYC for 106 & Park and down to Miami for Spring Bling. Unfortunately, some of the university’s faculty didn’t support the show or like the attention we got and one of my teachers purposely failed me specifically. I had to take a three-week class in summer school then come back to walk in the winter commencement.
AH: When the show was shooting it was my senior year. So I had a car and an apartment and a boyfriend and I wanted my freedom, but they wanted us to stay locked in the house all day and they wanted to tape every move we made. It was fun at first but it got old really quickly. But my best experience during the show was when we were flown out to Los Angeles. That changed my entire outlook on life. I knew if I could make it there I could make it anywhere. Two years later, I moved to Los Angeles and lived there for 6 years.
WM: They made us do one semester, but they only filmed us for a month and a half and we still had to finish out the semester. What they should’ve filmed is after they stopped filming. It was crazier off camera. Like when people didn’t feel the pressure of being on camera is when everyone finally relaxed — everyone was having sex a lot. It was just more fun.
Cultural Impact and Backlash
Though the series invited a wider audience into the Black college experience—drinking, partying and fighting included—heavy criticism ensued.
TE: The chancellor at Southern University and I had an excellent relationship. He wanted to increase enrollment at Southern and HBCUs. He understood that we could use College Hill as a vehicle to implant the idea of going to college to young kids, and that’s exactly what happened. That was the only year that we actually shot the show on campus, because there’s so much red tape involved. The Board of Directors has to approve all the episodes, and as a producer, that became very complicated for me because I wanted to show the students in an authentic light. I didn’t want to water down the show. While I understood that it was the board’s responsibility to protect the reputation of the university, people had to be realistic about the experience on any college campus. Students study, they have relationships, they go and let off steam and that is the 360-experience of being a college student. And our goal was to show the 360-experience of college life in a complete capacity. We can’t act like the only thing that a college student does is go to class and study. So we took the students off campus for seasons 2 through 6. That way we kept ourselves from having to go through the board’s approvals for edits, storylines and all that kinda stuff.
KA: I don’t think anything in my season was grossly misrepresented. It’s a part of real college life and it was for entertainment purposes. I do think there could be more shows that shed a more positive light on HBCUs, maybe that could have been something else to tap into. Still, enrollment went up after season 1 of College Hill debuted so that’s a silver lining.
RC: I know people were upset with our premiere episode when we were in the hot tub and someone’s bra came off. Mind you we were all young adults (18-21) and off campus. Most college students don’t have access to a hot tub, but “Truth or Dare” is always played. I can understand Black people wanting to preserve the dignity of our historic institutions, but I felt our season was the perfect display of student life.
AH: We did a lot of things that the audience did not see. We went to Washington D.C. to hear Barack Obama speak, volunteered at a homeless shelter and spoke with AIDS activists. There were positive things that happened that were not aired for whatever reason that would’ve made a more positive impact.
WM: Some of the backlash I received was really from people on the island. They felt that we were representing the Virgin Islands poorly. I remember I had sex with one of the island girls, and I started getting death threats.
TWG: The backlash was unfortunate because there were some benefits in terms of exposing the school to more students. Like at Langston, they saw spike in enrollment. I’m not sure what the administration or citizens wanted to see or expected to see. I mean, TV is not watching kids sitting in class. If you watch the seasons, we showed quite a bit of the students in or around classes and doing schoolwork. TV is entertainment and people want to see the spicier side of their real life, but the show inspired a whole lot of people who never considered themselves college material, just seeing the backgrounds of the students. I would venture to say that people that maybe questioned their viability for college education maybe rethought that.
TE: I went to college when I was 16. And that was my first experience ever away from home, and for me, being on campus and going to college and being away from home was a life-changing experience. You grow up. There were so many things that happened to me as a student — having your first sexual experience, having your first real relationship, learning how to get along with roommates, being responsible for yourself. I was a work-study student and working a waitress job. I knew the dynamics of all those first-time experiences and being able to explore that on TV was such a fun idea creatively. The uproar that took place over our show showing students getting into a physical altercation. That is so mild compared to what has now taken place on reality shows 15 years later. Conservative audiences have never seen that before, and so they were more outraged. Now we’re more accustom to it.
RC: I have so many people to this day contacting me on social media saying College Hill either made them attend Virginia State University or go to an HBCU in general. It’s been 15 years and it’s cool to know the show has influenced an entire generation. For me, it was A Different World that made me want to attend an HBCU. It feels amazing to know that because of my participation on the show, I am BET’s first-ever gay talent on America’s first-ever Black reality show. The show changed my entire life. Growing up in Virginia, being on TV wasn’t one of those “when I grow up” scenarios we discussed in class. Through this show, I was able to land my first corporate job in public relations, which was at BET’s Los Angeles office and since then I’ve gone on to work and be involved with numerous projects from working at Global Grind, radio in the DMV market to even hosting my own digital talk show for WEtv.
The Future of College Hill
The resurrection of the beloved series is a constant request, says Edmonds and several castmates.
TE: Now that there’s a new Head of Programming, Connie Orlando, I plan to go in and make another pitch to resurrect it because clearly, the audience is there for it.
KA: I think with some revamping, College Hill could perform well in today’s climate. Higher education has always been an interesting and exciting time in young adults’ lives and many times those stories deserve to be told. If College Hill ever returned to air, I would like to see the show explore more of the classroom settings sort of like A Different World. I’d like to see the cameras at Morehouse and Spelman.
RC: If any reality show needs to be revived, it’s College Hill. After Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, everyone was interested in HBCU everything, which is awesome! I’d love to see BET bring it back and possibly explore some of the smaller universities and cities that don’t get as much media attention.
TWG: The show created additional opportunities in a lot of different areas, so not only did it create opportunities behind the camera, a young line producer on that show by the name of Connie Orlando is now the head of programming at BET. My first experience working with Connie was on set at Langston University for College Hill. She was one of the daily producers. Ray’s experience on College Hill was a launching pad for his career in entertainment and there are some other examples. Also, College Hill revitalized on a national level just an interest and excitement around historically Black colleges and universities in general. We had not really been seeing HBCUs depicted in any major storylines really in television and programming, and now years later, we have shows like The Quad. Beyoncé did an entire show themed around HBCU culture at Coachella and it really brought the Black college experience into mainstream culture and created interest and manifested other projects. All of those wouldn’t have existed without College Hill.