African Americans form the second largest minority population at VCU, but in the College of Humanities and Sciences the graduation rate of African American men is lower than the rate for most other minority groups. In an effort to address this disparity, the College has formed the African American Male Student Advocacy and Mentoring Initiative.
“While the College has a large student population, we care about every single one of our students, and we want to provide a small College experience, with a commitment to help each student find his or her passion and achieve all his or her scholarship goals,” said Montse Fuentes, Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences.
The committee was charged by the Dean to increase the retention of and graduation rates among African American men in the College of Humanities and Sciences. It is composed of African American faculty from across the College, and led by Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology.
“If we’re not improving those rates somehow, we’re not really fulfilling our mission as a university and not really fulfilling our mission as professors who represent underrepresented groups,” Brooks said.
The initiative is still in the fact-finding stage of their mission, and will review the college’s current data on African American male students to identify specific factors that might account for disparities in their educational outcomes. They also plan to assess both the assets, and barriers, to academic achievement that African American males face by conducting interviews and focus groups with those students.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and co-convener of the initiative, Mychal Smith, Ph.D., studied student, family, and teacher attitudes towards the STEM fields and their impact on student achievement through his role as Community Liaison in the Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context at the University of Michigan. He says early exposure to the sciences is essential to the academic success of minority students.
“From what I’ve seen, if you give students the opportunity they flourish. Getting them the access in high school and middle school is the biggest barrier,” said Smith.
In addition to the inaccessibility of STEM education for minority populations, African American students also struggle to find role models and mentors in their field, who inspire them to keep working and reassure them that their dreams are achievable.
“I teach Anthropology 103 that attracts 145 students, but the reality is that I am the only African American professor that most of those students will have in their experience at VCU,” Brooks said. “I definitely believe it helps African American male students when they see someone who looks like them leading the class, who may understand those experiences.” Brooks is also President-Elect of the VCU Black Education Association (BEA), which has provided a support system for Black faculty and a conduit for addressing issues related to diversity since 1970.
According to the College of Humanities and Sciences, over the last six years graduation and retention rates among African Americans as a whole have been trending slightly upward, but the trends for males only have been more unpredictable. In order to capitalize on that upward momentum, the initiative plans to identify the existing programs and resources at VCU which already assist African American male students in their academic success. This survey will include university-wide programs such as the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and Department-level outreach programs that have proven to be successful.
In 2015 VCU’s Chemistry Department was ranked 3rd in the nation for graduating African Americans with bachelor’s degrees in Chemistry, behind only Xavier University in Louisiana and Howard University, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System in the Department of Education. This department in particular has excelled in supporting African American students through the creation of clubs, support groups, and summer programs.
Charlene Crawley, Ph.D., who began her career at VCU in 1995 as the first African American faculty member in the Chemistry Department, has spent over 20 years recruiting and supporting underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students in the STEM and health sciences fields through outreach projects like VCU Acceleration, the Division of Health Sciences flagship retention program which also prepares incoming freshmen from underrepresented or marginalized groups for college-level math and science courses. She is also Director of the Emerging Scholars Program in Chemistry, which was designed to support the education and retention of diverse student populations.
Smith, who became the first African American male faculty member in the VCU Chemistry Department in 2017, recently started a Black Males in Chemistry Support Group to provide rising African American chemists with academic assistance and community on campus.
“The opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of who goes out and uses the opportunities and takes advantage,” said Jaylen Thompson, an African American Chemistry major and freshman at VCU, who said he feels supported as a minority within the department.
The initiative will also look outside VCU, to study strategies that have already been successful in increasing graduation rates and retention among African American males at other educational institutions. They plan to begin implementing changes in the College as early as this year.
“I am very excited about this initiative, that I will run in parallel to an alumni-to-student mentoring program to enhance the success of our diverse student population,” Fuentes said. “In the College of Humanities and Sciences we celebrate the diversity of our very distinctive student population. It is part of our mission and a core value of the College to promote not just diversity, but inclusion.”
Written by Megan Schiffres