Celebrating Women’s History Month with Berklee and Spelman College Students

Idriemeka Bailey and Madyson S. McSwain open up about their experiences in the inaugural exchange program.

March 29, 2024

Berklee and Spelman College have fairly different institutional identities, but, in the fall of 2023, the two schools did have one thing in common—together, they launched an inaugural domestic student exchange program to promote educational opportunities in music and liberal arts to female-identifying students of African descent.

The Berklee-Spelman exchange program was conceived several years ago by its founding director Tia Fuller, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, saxophonist, bandleader, and professor in Berklee’s Ensemble Department. Fuller, a magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor’s degree in music from Spelman College, collaborated with Paula Grissom-Broughton, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Spelman, to develop the program. Fuller’s inspiration stemmed from a life-changing musical experience at the historically Black all-women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia.

The two students selected were Berklee sophomore Idriemeka Bailey, who hails from New Orleans, and Spelman junior Madyson S. McSwain, who lives in Atlanta. Bailey was able to take political and music classes at Spelman as well as across the AUC [the HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) consortium Atlanta University Center]. “I made the absolute most of the exchange program,” says the sophomore. “When I got to Spelman, I joined the Spelman NAACP chapter, Spelpreneur (an entrepreneurship program), and Spelmanites United for Justice.”

While at Berklee, I learned so much about myself. I pushed myself as a student and artist, and I’m truly proud of my execution.

— Madyson S. McSwain

For McSwain, a singer concentrating in production and music technology, it would be her first time coming to Boston, and she intended to make the most of her experience at Berklee. “I was able to take all the classes I wanted and I loved all of them,” says the junior. “I also got to attend workshops with two visiting artists, Rico Love and PJ Morton. Ms. Tia Fuller also made sure I was notified of things to be a part of and helped me get into the best ensemble with Ms. Mimi Jones.”

Now, back at their respective colleges for the spring semester, they discussed why they participated in the exchange program, the adjustment to new cities, and what they learned about themselves.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Did you have any expectations about the exchange program between Berklee and Spelman, and if so, what were they?

Idriemeka Bailey: My expectations for the exchange program were for Madyson and I to leave with a more enriched perspective on our culture and music. I knew that Spelman would offer an environment that catered to uplifting professional Black women in their choice of field, and I was eager to join.

Madyson McSwain: Honestly, my only expectation through this exchange was to grow my education in music. Having the opportunity to go to Berklee and having a candy store of courses to choose from, I knew and expected that I would have fun classes and learn so much.

Why did the two of you want to participate in the program?

Bailey: I participated in the program because I grew up in a predominantly Black background. Growing up in New Orleans, I always felt like I was constantly being embraced by the warm weather, fantastic food, rich culture, best music, and powerful history. When I decided to come to Berklee, I traded my environment from the warm embrace to the fast-paced gush of wind I know as Boston. Spelman, to me, was another opportunity to feel that familiar embrace in a different context and learn about Atlanta’s culture. Also, Spelman is and has been the. . .No. 1 HBCU for 17 years running. . .and it’s an all-women’s institution. Black excellence at its finest!

McSwain: I wanted to participate in this program for three main reasons. Reason number one is that it was a huge opportunity to attend a music school and live out my Victorious [an old Nickelodeon show] dreams. I also have never been satisfied with just being able to sing. I’ve always wanted to stretch my gift and learn more. Secondly, it was a huge honor to kick off this amazing program and go down in history for my school’s music program. Finally, this was also an opportunity for me to attend school with my cousin, which we’ve always wanted to do. And it also allowed me to meet my social media friends in person for the first time.

Idrie, how was your overall experience attending Spelman? Did you experience any culture shock?

I give my overall experience at Spelman a 9/10. I got to experience so many different things while in the AUC. There was no culture shock. I felt right at home because, in a way, it was like another home. Being surrounded by all that Blackness, talent, and inspiration was like I was right back in New Orleans.

Madyson, how was your overall experience attending Berklee? Coming from Atlanta did you experience any culture shock?

My overall experience at Berklee was fun. I will say there was definitely culture shock coming from Atlanta and attending an HBCU. However, Berklee has a very tight-knit community with its Black students. Everyone knows each other and supports each other so that was nice to be a part of. I truly appreciated their BSI [Black Scholars Initiative] program during my first arrival. Without the BSI, I think navigating the school would’ve been difficult because when everyone is on campus, it’s pretty hard to find other Black students. Other than that, I enjoyed being surrounded by so many creatives. I attended as many caf shows and participated in as many shows with my friends. I can honestly say, I took advantage of my time there, and I’m glad I did.

What did you take away from the exchange experience, and did you learn anything about yourself?

Bailey: The most important value that I have taken away from the program is to be my unapologetic self in any environment I’m in. I made many connections by being Idrie and sharing my personality, gifts, and humor with others. Oftentimes, as Black women, we’re overlooked in many instances because we’re the minority. So, we always have to be three times as good even to be noticed. No matter where I am, I was put into that position for a reason. Those women at Spelman deserve to be there and lead remarkable careers because they work hard. This program further solidified why God put a trumpet in my hand, a bold personality in my mind, and so much passion in my spirit.

McSwain: While at Berklee, I learned so much about myself. I pushed myself as a student and artist, and I’m truly proud of my execution. I was able to produce two of my own projects and, on top of that, balanced a stacked schedule (I wanted to take every class I could possibly take). I also grew as a performer and musician. Coming back to Atlanta, I’ve implemented everything I’ve learned in each class into my life back home, and my teachers, friends, and family have noticed it. Berklee also made me check the perfectionist in me. My songwriting class played a huge role in that, and I can’t say I’ve completely let go of my perfectionist habits, but I check myself all the time on it. Berklee taught me that music is more about feeling than technicality, but it is important to know what you’re doing. I’m truly grateful for the experience and I would’ve loved to stay an extra semester. There was only so much I could do in the fall, and I feel like I would’ve grown even more if I stayed in the spring. I truly appreciate Ms. Tia Fuller for creating the exchange program and this is an experience I will never forget.

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