Addressing Mental Health On The Yard


Rwenshaun Miller

To many, college is described as the best time of your life. The freedom. The parties. The friends. And let’s not forget the abundance of knowledge that one obtains. The college experience helps mold who you are as a person because it is a time to learn.

I learned that despite expectations from others, I would have to discover my own likes and dislikes to plan my future accordingly.

I learned that some of my aspirations and expectations just weren’t meant to be.

I learned that failing a class does not mean that I am dumb and it is not the end of the world.

I learned how stress affects my body in both good ways and bad.

A significant item I learned during my sophomore year was that my inability to sleep and the voices that I would hear as I sat in my dorm room were symptoms of the mental health diagnosis known as Bipolar II disorder. This lesson was not easily learned—it came as a result of me being forced to the hospital by my family because they knew I wasn’t the Shaun that they were used to.

Learning, acknowledging, and accepting this fact about myself was not an easy task. I had heard the term ‘bipolar’ before, as people including myself would use it loosely to describe the weather or a person with mood swings, but I did not know about the actual illness. It was also a term that I had associated with “crazy.”

But now that I had an actual diagnosis, I did not want others to know or label me as crazy. I had to constantly remind myself that “Nothing is wrong with me.”

The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness in the black community is a proven silent killer. While rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide to continue to rise, individuals continue to suffer in silence.

This stigma doesn’t stop at the threshold of the college campus, as many students are not mentally healthy and do not know how to address their issues accordingly. According to a 2013 report by Institute of Education Sciences, there are over 300,000 students in enrolled at HBCUs. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, reports indicate that 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year. Using some rough math, this means that approximately 60,000 students that attend a HBCU may suffer from a mental illness. And that’s not even accounting for the demographic variations, which indicate that Black males from ages 20 to 24 have the highest rates of suicide in the Black population, averaging 18.18 per 100,000.

Unfortunately, this number may even be significantly higher because some may choose not to acknowledge and tend to their mental health needs.

Similar to my college experience, many black students may not understand what they are experiencing mentally.

I knew that I was sad for a few days and I didn’t want to be bothered but I did not know that chronic sadness and withdrawal are symptoms of depression.

I knew that I had trouble paying attention in class and focusing on assignments but I did not know that professional help could assist me with learning how to improve this behavior.

I knew that it is common to drink alcohol or use drugs in college but I did not know that there could be an underlying issue contributing to abusing substances.

The black community, especially among college students, rarely addresses these issues as an illness that needs professional treatment. Ignorance, Fear, ego, and pride prevent us from acknowledging the problem, asking for help, and following through with treatment.

“This doesn’t happen to us”

“I’m not crazy”

“I don’t need any help, I can control this”

“Seeing a therapist is a sign of weakness”

On campuses, students utilize an array of resources including tutors, libraries, gyms, and other programs but fail to make use of counseling services.

I was that student. Before hospitalization, I didn’t even know where the Counseling and Wellness office was located. So of course I didn’t know the service was available. It is not a marketable as the student rec center or dining hall but it should in fact serve as a vital role to assist in a student’s success.

No, it is not a place for “crazy” people. It is a place to assist you in being as healthy as possible by treating a muscle that we often take for granted: our brain. This includes but is not limited to therapy, medication management, and psychological testing.

Each student on every HBCU campus must recognize the importance of this part of his or her life and utilize these resources. These barriers must be broken in order to help students thrive in an arena that is fun, exciting, but also very stressful. In most cases, portions of these services are covered by your tuition.

So ask yourself: Why not use them?

Rwenshaun Miller is a Mental Health Awareness Advocate, Founder of Eustress Inc., and Blogger at Monumental Monomental. In 2007, Rwenshaun was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Severe with Psychotic Features. As a Black male, he wants to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness and promote wellness for everyone.

“The Lavender Fund”: Howard University Makes A Statement


Steve D. Mobley

On August 29, 2015, Howard University made a statement. With the support of the trustee board, its graduate trustee Christopher N. Cross released a letter to Howard’s alumni and current students that they were embarking upon a new frontier to engage their campus community in a brand new endeavor. What makes this new initiative special? This year Howard University will host their first officially recognized Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally (LGBTA) fundraiser amongst their nationally recognized homecoming events. The event, “The Inaugural LGBTA Renaissance Reception of Howard University,” will occur during the 2015 Homecoming Celebration.

Numerous events are held during Howard’s Homecoming, including a fashion show, football game, and step show. During the course of a week, the campus welcomes over 100,000 alumni and friends of the university. However, their new LGBT event marks a significant turn for Howard and HBCU history. Howard is consciously placing their LGBT constituents on a national platform and courageously standing in the face of homophobia. They are attempting to engage their LGBT students and alumni so that a culture of inclusion can be established and emulated in other HBCU communities.

As a Howard alum who is part of the LGBT community, Howard’s groundbreaking stance on LGBT student and alumni engagement is extremely personal to me. At an early age I decided that I was going to attend an HBCU. While my peers looked to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, I viewed our country’s HBCUs with the same reverence and ultimately decided to attend Howard University. As I reflect on my choice, I celebrate my ten-year college reunion, and as Howard approaches its 150th anniversary I am truly in awe. I never thought that this day would come. My alma mater is finally validating the oppressed identities of LGBT students who are present on their campus and recognizing their LGBT students and alumni in a huge way. Unfortunately, across the country LGBT HBCU students often live “invisible lives.” These students do not feel as if they truly are a part of their campus communities.

My time at Howard was extremely positive and played a huge role in shaping my adult development. During my undergraduate career, I was highly involved, nurtured by faculty, and enjoyed immense popularity. However, there were blatant overt and covert messages that were conveyed to me by the campus administration and my peers regarding my sexuality that forced me to hide the fact that I was gay, and in essence, I shut off an entire part of my identity.

Howard was “home,” but as much as I loved it I always wondered, did it truly love me back? For the first time, I am finally hopeful that Howard does love me and those who are like me—alumni who are unafraid to live and walk in their own truths, those current students who may be questioning their place, and even perspective students who may be uncertain if an HBCU is the “right” place for them as they reconcile their sexuality.

Howard has taken a brave stand. Their inaugural LGBTA fundraiser will use the funds raised to establish “The Lavender Fund.” The Lavender Fund will establish programs and work to promote a campus culture that directly confronts the venomous homophobia that divides Black communities on Howard’s campus and at other HBCUs. Research has shown that there is a need to improve the campus climates for LGBT students so that they will one day engage and give back to their alma maters. If this is accomplished, HBCU LGBT alumni can be engaged to forge spaces of inclusion and acceptance for all students. Engagement of all is critical.

Trustee Cross concluded his letter by stating, “It is time to tear away the masks and address the issues that have been festering in order to alleviate the isolation, bullying and depression among members of our LGBT community.” These words give me hope that Howard and other HBCUs shall welcome HBCU LGBT communities, so that we can work towards making HBCUs reciprocal educational spaces that recognize and affirm each and every student that seeks to walk their hallowed grounds.

The invitation to the Howard University “Lavender Fund” reception and giving information can be found here.

Steve D. Mobley, Jr. recently earned his Ph.D from the University of Maryland with a focus in Educational Policy & Leadership. He is an affiliate with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions and engages in research that highlights contemporary HBCU topics that include race, class, and sexuality.

A Summer Intern Story: Lessons, Love, and Learning


Vanessa Peña

I first met Marybeth Gasman at a guest lecture at Beloit College in February 2014, where I first heard the term “Minority Serving Institutions.” I was amazed to learn there were institutions that catered specifically to minority students, especially since I was attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). As a result, I instantly became interested in MSIs. After hearing her lecture, I approached her to introduce myself and told her about my summer job in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—the same area where she had grown up. There was something radiant about her and I just wanted to keep talking to her. However, anyone who knows Marybeth knows how everyone gravitates towards her, so our conversation was brief since there were many other students waiting in line to talk to her.

As a McNair Scholar at Beloit College, I was in touch with a former McNair Scholar, Daniel Corral, who had previously interned at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI). When I learned he was going to intern with Marybeth, I was very excited for him because I had met her and knew he would thrive at the Center, especially with his involvement on campus. His opportunity got me thinking. I began to talk to my McNair Director, Dr. Nicole Truesdell and McNair Mentor, Dr. William (Bill) New, about my interest in working with Marybeth for my second summer in the program. Luckily, I had great people at Beloit who connected me with Marybeth, which led to my opportunity to intern at the Center this summer.

I arrived in Philadelphia this past June to start my eight-week internship. I jumped right in and started working on the Center’s weekly Monday Morning MSI Line Up and had the amazing opportunity to be a part of the Center’s inaugural Enriching Learning, Enhancing Visibility, and Training Educators (ELEVATE) program. Working at the Center while ELEVATE took place was the highlight of my internship, as it allowed me to meet early-career scholars working at MSIs from all over the nation. Preparing for the event, meeting the scholars, and being able to hear their personal experiences about working at an MSI was amazing since I got a first-hand experience on much of the research I was doing for the Center. Along with ELEVATE, this internship helped me develop my professional career by teaching me about philanthropy, creating budgets and grants, and investigating what was happening on MSI campuses. I would not have been able to do this without the mentorship of everyone at the Center.

The love and support I received from the Center was truly a blessing. My time there was inspiring. I worked with such amazing, brilliant, and loving people who were always so welcoming and I quickly felt part of the family. Along with learning about MSIs came life lessons. I learned so much about myself and how to work in ways to support minorities in higher education in order for them to thrive—this is something that I plan to bring back to my PWI campus. This year, I will be taking a class at Beloit College titled “Investigating Minority Serving Institutions,” which I am super thrilled about because my internship at the Center just left me wanting to learn more about MSIs. Therefore, although I am no longer working at the Center, my class will remind of all the wonderful people who greatly impacted my life while working there this summer.

I would like to thank everyone at the Center, everyone I met from ELEVATE, and everyone that made this internship possible. After this school year, I look forward to applying for and attending graduate school for a PhD in Higher Education in order to continue learning about minorities in higher education and helping those like myself obtain their dreams and aspirations.

Vanessa Peña is a rising senior who is double majoring in Education and Sociology at Beloit College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin. She is originally from Chicago, Illinois and is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. 

Food for Thought: The Link Between MSIs and Agriculture

Brittini R Brown

Brittini R. Brown

Hello, my name is Brittini Brown and I am an African-American woman who has a passion for changing the lives of people through agriculture. Before you shift your eyes away, yes, you are reading MSIs Unplugged. No, this article has not been published on the wrong blog. Yes, in just a few short sentences, you’ve already learned that there is in fact an intersection between Minority Serving Institutions and agriculture. So, what is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated concepts?

In 2050, experts project that the global population will reach an estimated 9.6 billion people. The U.S. population will rise to approximately 438 million, where over half will be minorities. While some may be concerned with where these people will live and work, I’m most concerned with what food they will eat, how it will be produced, and most importantly, who will provide the knowledge required to produce it. If we are to increase the production required to feed this population, not only must our universities graduate more animal scientists, horticulturalists, plant scientists, agricultural engineers, food scientists, and the like, but—guess what—they must also be graduates of color. In order to produce enough food to feed our growing population, U.S. workforce needs cannot be met without graduating students of color because non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the next 20 years.

Oh yeah, and just in case you haven’t realized it yet, these are STEM disciplines. Unfortunately, agriculture is often overlooked in STEM discussions. However, if you enjoy eating the way I do, I think it’s pretty important that agriculture become a part the conversation.

Though a number of university- and government-sponsored programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate, and the Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholars Program have made gains in increasing the presence of underrepresented minorities in STEM, there is still work to be done. In fact, the White House reports an estimated need for 1 million STEM graduates in the next decade. Yet, compared to their proportions in the U.S. population, Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. Further, in 2012, whites earned 68.5% of science and engineering doctoral degrees while minorities earned a combined 20.9%. But, just in case I wasn’t clear before, many of our future graduates will need to be students of color because without them we simply cannot meet our growing workforce needs.

A 2009 report by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities suggests that higher education must refocus its efforts on training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I also believe one of the greatest opportunities to increase the number of minority students pursuing and obtaining graduate degrees in STEM is through partnerships between 1890 and 1862 Land-Grant Universities (LGUs). Their capacity to produce highly capable STEM baccalaureate graduates of color and conduct STEM-intensive research is unmatched. Historically Black LGUs, like North Carolina A&T State University and Florida A&M University, enroll 29% of all African-American students enrolled in LGUs. Predominantly White LGUs, such as Purdue University and Iowa State University, not only have the financial capacity to fund underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM graduate degrees but also the research capacity to produce the agricultural scientists needed to meet our food production needs.

So, what is the connection between MSIs and agriculture? It’s quite simple. In order to feed the growing U.S. and global population, it is imperative that Land-Grant Universities engage in partnerships to produce the graduates of color needed for the STEM workforce. Maybe then, the concept of an African-American woman who has a passion for changing the world through agriculture won’t be the exception, but rather the rule.

Brittini R. Brown is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Strategic Planning, Partnership, and Development for Mentoring@Purdue, an initiative aimed at enhancing mentoring relationships between faculty, and women and underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM-based agricultural and life science graduate degrees in the Purdue University, College of Agriculture. 

Reflections on ELEVATE and Faculty Development at MSIs


Taryn Ozuna Allen

This past June, the two of us had the opportunity to join 16 other early-career scholars from MSIs across the country as members of the inaugural class for Enriching Learning, Enhancing Visibility, and Training Educators (ELEVATE), a faculty fellowship program offered by the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI). An intensive and empowering three-day professional development conference, ELEVATE offered workshops, seminars, and networking opportunities designed to improve our chances for earning tenure at our respective MSIs.


Michael Steven Williams

Whether by reliving a pleasant experience, or avoiding previous mistakes, reflection is a powerful tool that serves many purposes. The goal of this particular reflection is to share our takeaways from ELEVATE with hopes of helping anyone and everyone interested in early-career faculty success, especially for faculty of color and MSI faculty who might not have the same institutional resources as others.


As researchers with a shared interest in examining how a sense of belonging helps students succeed at all levels of education, we noticed how important this concept was to the ELEVATE program. The director, staff, and students at the CMSI were warm, welcoming, and accommodating even before we arrived in Philadelphia. Indeed, the atmosphere for the entire program could be best described as familial. Though each of the fellows hailed from different institutions, regions, and academic disciplines, connecting across difference was easy because everyone felt like they belonged. These feelings of connection have already extended beyond our time together in Philadelphia, and many of the scholars have already made plans to collaborate and otherwise uplift each other.


Earning tenure is a long and challenging process, especially for those with fewer resources such as faculty at MSIs. But there are many paths to success—some more adventurous than others. Don’t discount your experience just because someone else makes their journey look easier, more exciting, or cooler. Appreciate what you are doing, and celebrate what you have accomplished! As early-career faculty, it is important to focus on your own path and take care of yourself on the journey to tenure. Think about your writing goals for each semester and year but also think about your personal goals. Consider the things that bring you joy and peace and include them in your calendar. Everyone has the same amount of time each day, each week, each month, and each year. The trick is making sure you use your time in ways that are productive, engaging, and restorative. Don’t say you don’t have time for things! Instead make time to do the things that are important to you!


Maintaining balance between your work and personal responsibilities is a day-to-day and moment-to-moment endeavor. Balance is also relative. What it means for your life can change from semester to semester and year to year. As new responsibilities arrive, it is important to carefully consider what you can and cannot do. Honest reflection about your current commitments, priorities, and work capacity can help you regroup, rebalance, and simplify things when you are feeling overwhelmed. Communication is also essential to balance. Clear communication with family and friends (e.g., sharing information about an approaching deadline that may limit your availability) can help manage expectations and make it easier to navigate temporarily challenging situations.


We’ve all heard horror stories about collaboration. Some show little respect for deadlines and contribute low-quality work if they finally get around to turning something in. Despite these unfortunate possibilities, strong collaborations can lower stress, facilitate productivity, and enhance the quality of scholarship. The key is selectively and deliberately choosing people to collaborate with. The best collaborations are built on trust and mutual respect, and these partnerships flourish when individuals submit high-quality contributions in the agreed-upon timeframe. They also benefit when each team member is willing and able to take the lead on different projects. This can improve the number and variety of projects at different stages of completion, so the collective research program is always progressing. However, it is also important to acknowledge that life happens. If you or your collaborators anticipate falling short on an obligation, then it is important to let the whole team know as soon as possible, so everyone is informed and can adjust accordingly. Choosing collaborators with good communication skills, complementary values, and a similar work ethic can make working together a joy.

We want to offer our sincere thanks to Paola ‘Lola’ Esmieu for developing and implementing such a great event. A special thank you goes to all of the amazing ELEVATE mentors—Marybeth Gasman, Andrew Arroyo, Tim Fong, Dina Maramba, Anne-Marie Nuñez, Robert T. Palmer, Alice Ginsberg, Kent Wallace, Caleph Wilson—for sharing their wisdom and advice. Although we are early-career faculty of color that work at Minority Serving Institutions, we expect the tools and tips that resonated with us to help early-career faculty at any institution. The lessons we learned were immediately applicable to our personal and professional lives.

Taryn Ozuna Allen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington (an HSI).

Michael Steven Williams is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York (an AANAPISI).

Supporting Trauma Victims Could Lower Attrition Rates at HBCUs


Larry Walker

Experiencing a traumatic event can have a long-term impact on a student’s academic performance. Exposure to trauma contributes to mental health and anxiety disorders including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which prevent students from completing simple tasks such as attending class. Of course, it is vital to ensure that all students struggling with a prior or recent traumatic event have access to counselors, but it is important to remember that African-Americans from underserved backgrounds are more likely than Whites to have exposure to trauma. In addition, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) educate a higher percentage of students from underserved backgrounds in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Yet, because of funding disparities between PWIs and HBCUs, declining enrollment, and smaller endowments, HBCUs struggle to provide services to students from disadvantaged communities. HBCUs’ inability to provide therapeutic support services for survivors of trauma may very well impact student attrition rates.

The majority of research on HBCUs and student attrition rates focuses on measures including school readiness, family household income and support, peer relationships and school climate. However, a recent study by Boyraz, Horne, Owens and Armstrong (2013) found that African-American students’ exposure to trauma also negatively impacted their likelihood to return to school. Their findings are significant for HBCUs because these colleges and universities enroll a disproportionate number of African-American students, and those students are more likely to be exposed to trauma. For example, a study examining the relationship between trauma and academic performance for students at a HBCU found that participants were exposed to a variety of crime- and physical-related traumas including robberies and assaults. Investigating the relationship between trauma and academic performance would add to the overall body of research on HBCUs.

Ensuring students from underserved backgrounds have access to comprehensive mental health services could mediate traumas’ impact on academic performance. Unfortunately, African-Americans rarely seek support for trauma because (1) they have a general mistrust of the health care system, (2) there are stigmas associated with mental health, and (3) there is limited access to mental health services within underserved communities. For HBCUs, destigmatizing mental health will require coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies. Working with public health officials could help HBCUs combat micro issues that are unique to the African-American community.

Although HBCUs face unique challenges regarding mental health, many postsecondary institutions throughout the United States are struggling to identify students in need of mental health services. Over the last few months Appalachian State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tulane University had students die from suicide. These unfortunate deaths have forced postsecondary institutions to carefully reexamine the role counseling centers play in the lives of undergraduate and graduate students. Ensuring counseling centers have a robust budget is critical to providing assistance to vulnerable populations. However, in comparison to large PWIs, HBCUs may not have the resources to counsel students from underserved backgrounds.

HBCU administrators will have to adopt a cost effective approach to ensure students have access to therapeutic services. This should include a campus-wide acknowledgment of mental health issues that emphasizes counseling for those who need it and destigmatization to ensure students are comfortable pursuing treatment. Implementing school-wide initiatives can also help schools address specific issues. For instance, Spelman College eliminated their intercollegiate athletics program to develop a comprehensive student wellness program. While not all HBCUs should not consider eliminating their athletic programs, the Spelman initiative highlights the importance of developing a holistic approach to learning that emphasizes health first and foremost.

HBCUs have to support the academic and emotional needs of African-American students. This should include adopting proactive approaches that challenge conventional thinking. For example, Paul Quinn College announced a new school/work model, which will allow students to earn real work experiences and eliminate unnecessary student debt. Paul Quinn’s new initiative could become a model for HBCUs throughout the United States. Similarly, developing a template that includes support for trauma could counter environmental factors that impact student attrition rates.

Throughout their history HBCUs have overcome a variety of economic and political obstacles. Despite the unique challenges they face, African-American students can benefit from attending institutions with a focus on shared responsibility and cultural awareness. However, HBCUs have to adapt to ensure they remain competitive with institutions of similar size. HBCUs should develop policies that meet the unique social and emotional needs of new and returning students. Trauma can have a short and long-term impact on the lives of at risk populations, and without comprehensive support, debilitating mental health problems could prevent students from completing their postsecondary education.

Larry J. Walker is a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Studies at Morgan State University.

Chanting the Data: An Evidence-Based Approach to Graduate Student Success


David A. Ortiz

One might argue that there exists an embarrassment of riches in the research regarding student persistence in higher education, especially for traditionally aged undergraduates. One might also argue that there is an emerging body of knowledge on student success for Latino/a undergraduate students. However, when it comes to our knowledge and understanding about the experiences of Latino/a master’s level graduate students, I’d suggest that we know very little about this student population. I dare you to tell me otherwise. In fact, I double-dog dare you.

Recent data analysis by The Pew Hispanic Center has shown a greater number of Latino/a students are enrolling in higher education institutions across the country. While access to and research on undergraduate education is increasing, there remains an untapped body of knowledge on Latinos/as in graduate school. Moreover, as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Emerging HSIs grow in total numbers, their potential impact on graduate student success must be understood. In other words, what high-impact programs and services promote the educational pathway to graduation for Hispanics at HSIs?

According to a report by Excelencia in Education, the total number of HSIs with graduate programs increased by 91 institutions from 1994 to 2013, representing an increase of 190%. Moreover, nearly 90% of HSI graduate programs can be found in six locations: Puerto Rico, California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Mexico.

Recognizing the growth of Latinos/as attending graduate school at HSIs, The Department of Education’s Hispanic Serving Institution Division launched a new funding competition as part of the Title V grant funds in 2009, and subsequently in 2010 through 2014, to identify and fund innovative ideas that promote Latino/a graduate student success at HSIs. The Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans (PPOHA) Program provided grants to: (1) expand postbaccalaureate educational opportunities for, and improve the academic attainment of, Hispanic students; and (2) expand the postbaccalaureate academic offerings as well as enhance the program quality in the institutions of higher education that are educating the majority of Hispanic college students and helping large numbers of Hispanic and low-income students complete postsecondary degrees. Between 2009 and 2014, approximately $19M per fiscal year—$114M in total—was appropriated for PPOHA.

On the surface, these numbers are certainly impressive. However, a cautionary tale must be noted: the funding pattern for PPOHA remains inconsistent. Whereas other Title V competitions have a regular five-year rotation with dedicated funds, PPOHA has neither. Interim Director of the Department of Education’s HSI Division, Ralph Hines, has already stated in public that a 2015 PPOHA competition is unlikely. So what does all of this mean? For me, it proves that we must be fastidious in collecting data to demonstrate the success of PPOHA grants and other similar best practices for graduate student success. However, if you try to mine the literature for studies on Latinos/as in graduate school (specifically master’s students), you can expect your plate to come up mostly empty. This needs to change.

For emerging scholars seeking to etch out a research agenda that is untapped and open to possibilities, or for the seasoned scholar interested in augmenting the knowledge base of Latino/a student success, a focus on Hispanics in graduate school is ripe for the picking. With the launch of Excelencia in Education’s HSI Center for Policy and Practice in October 2014 as well as the existence of other national organizations such as the Association of HSI Educators (AHSIE), the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities’ (HACU) recent Deans’ Forum on Graduate Education, and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE), there are multiple resources scholars can draw upon to carry out this research.

I once heard Dr. Frances K. Stage, one of my former professors at Indiana University, state that we needed to “chant the names of the ancestors” before making our own personal claims and recommendations about problems and solutions in higher education. This anthropological reference suggests that we must rely on solid research from the past to guide our understanding of best practices in the present. In a time when research on Latino/a students in graduate school is limited, be advised that the names we chant in the future…may be yours!

Dr. David A. Ortiz is the Founding Director of the University of the Incarnate Word’s Graduate Support Center and Assistant Professor of Research and Graduate Studies. The Graduate Support Center is the recipient of the Excelencia in Education’s 2014 Example of Excelencia in the Graduate Education category.

Leaving Penn: A Reflection


Thai-Huy Nguyen

On May 16th, 2015, I ended my graduate education by walking alongside my friends and colleagues in the field of education as our degrees were conferred upon us. The day started off with immense excitement and nervousness, in part because it meant that I was leaving my home—the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for MSIs—of five years.

What did these five years consist of? What was it like to be a graduate student at Penn’s Graduate School of Education?

The learning curve was quite steep for me. Coming straight out of the workforce, I was not immediately attuned to the level and amount of reading and writing required of me. My first year took a great deal of persistence and sacrifice in light of the many social distractions that accompany graduate education in beautiful Philadelphia. What became readily helpful was the ongoing support of my advisor and fellow colleagues in the program and across the university. Time spent with them gave way to fruitful conversations that blossomed into enduring friendships and opportunities for collaboration—both of which were necessary to help me begin my path into the academy.

Penn is quite unique in its approach to graduate education in that it actively encourages its schools and departments to work closely with students to develop interdisciplinary plans of study—believing that cross-discipline learning will bring about greater knowledge to tackle today’s most pressing social and economic issues. I embraced this path throughout my five years by exposing myself to research and scholars inside and outside—nursing, history and sociology—of my field. Studying and working in these disciplines and fields strengthened my research and modes of inquiry and gave me a better understanding of why my work in higher education matters.

The most exhilarating aspect of this path was the unnerving nature of its structure: there was none. I had to dig deep, commit to different ways of thinking and theorizing, and avail myself of research topics in which I had little experience. For instance, in the past three years, I worked closely with Margo Brooks Carthon, a professor of nursing science at Penn. Through her grant with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I became her project manager on a national survey of diversity pipeline programs in nursing baccalaureate programs. This opportunity gave way to a wonderful cross-disciplinary collaboration in which we used our collective interests and expertise to address the shortage of nursing students of color and shed light on the practices that encourage their success in nursing education programs. Despite feeling lost at the start, the choice to pursue an individualized path became quite liberating with every new project and course, and I began to make sense of the vast knowledge I had amassed over the years.

In my last year at Penn, I became a research assistant for the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), conducting research to improve our nation’s understanding of MSIs. I was fortunate to contribute to CMSI’s achievements through empirical research, policy reports and grant writing, which in turn gave me the preparation I needed to transition to my new role as a faculty member. Although I worked with all sorts of faculty and students across the university, it was important—in light of all the changes in my last year—that I had a home at the CMSI. Of my time and experiences at Penn, I will miss the CMSI the most.

Aside from my formal training, I am leaving with a community of friends that I trust and can depend on—an indication that my graduate education at Penn has been a journey that I will fondly look back upon and smile with deep gratitude and inspiration.

Thai-Huy Nguyen is an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. Prior to his appointment, he served as a research assistant for the Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ensuring Non-Traditional Black Student Success at HBCUs: A Researcher’s Reflection

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Ramon B. Goings

At the beginning stages of my dissertation research study, which explores the academic and social experiences of high-achieving Black male HBCU students, I thought I would find individuals who had a traditional trajectory to college. More specifically, I was prepared to hear my participants discuss their transition from high school directly to their collegiate institution. However, I have quickly learned that the Black men in my study have not had the traditional route to college. In fact, many of the men arrived at their respective HBCU from community college or from the workforce after establishing their families and careers.

For instance, one of my participants, Rahim (pseudonym), received his undergraduate degree at the age of 61 while continuing his successful career owning a construction company. Rahim acknowledged that earning his college degree was not necessary to ensure his future success in the workforce; however, he understood that earning his degree would provide him the opportunity to pass along his wisdom and knowledge to students as a high school and/or college instructor. Interestingly, Rahim’s story and others in my study are not uncommon—the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) data on postsecondary enrollment trends shows that from 2001-2011, the enrollment of non-traditional students (ages 25 and older) increased by 35%. While a growing body of research has emerged analyzing the experiences of Black students on HBCU campuses, there is a need for more studies that explore the experiences of non-traditional Black undergraduate students attending HBCUs.

In Robert Palmer’s October 13, 2014 blog post for MSIs Unplugged titled,  “Charting a New Agenda: Being More Intentional about Examining the Experiences of Black Students at HBCUs,” he challenges researchers to focus on different facets of the Black student experience at HBCU institutions. Furthermore, he provides valuable topics for researchers to explore, including examining the challenges students encounter at HBCUs. His insights are valuable as they push researchers to further develop our knowledge of the experiences of Black students have at HBCUs.

Along with Palmer’s suggestions for new research topics, I believe there are many unexplored questions regarding non-traditional HBCU students in particular that should also be explored, such as:

  1. How do non-traditional HBCU students balance their home, work and school responsibilities while working towards their college degree?
  2. What challenges do non-traditional HBCU students face and overcome during their college tenure?
  3. How do non-traditional HBCU students establish and navigate relationships with faculty and peers on campus?

As the cost of college tuition continues to rise, we will continue to see an increase in non-traditional students nationwide. Some students may elect to attend community college to save money prior to enrolling in a four-year institution while other students may choose to enter the workforce to earn money to pay for college. Furthermore, as stories continue to surface regarding decreases in enrollment at HBCUs, it is important for HBCU administrators and policymakers to capitalize on this opportunity to target non-traditional students in an intentional manner to potentially increase their overall student enrollment. Moreover, knowing more about the non-traditional student population will be critical to support student recruitment efforts as well as the development of programs on campus to support non-traditional students.

Ramon B. Goings is a doctoral candidate at Morgan State University.

Diversity and Social Justice at Historically Black Law Schools


Elisa Chen

Historically Black Law Schools (HBLSs) make up a small minority of this nation’s 200+ law schools. In fact, there are only six HBLSs accredited by the American Bar Association. They are:

Yet, despite the small number of HBLSs, these law schools play a vital role in educating students and bettering our nation’s jurisprudence. They all share unique histories of and missions dedicated to helping underserved students. After all, HBLSs were originally established because black students were excluded from white law schools under the separate-but-equal doctrine. For example, Thurgood Marshall School of Law was specifically created by Texas in response to Sweatt v. Painter, the lawsuit which later set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. Today, Thurgood Marshall School of Law remains dedicated to supporting underserved students in the legal profession, viewing itself as an agent of community change that empowers the disenfranchised by preparing lawyers to practice law and shape public policy.

In addition to Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the aforementioned HBLSs are also considered some of the most diverse law schools in the nation. In fact, Florida A&M University Law School has been recognized as the most diverse law school in the United States. HBLSs are also known for inspiring social change. For instance, Southern University Law Center’s mission is “to provide access and opportunity to a diverse group of students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups to obtain a high quality legal education… [and] to train a cadre of lawyers equipped with the skills necessary for the practice of law and for positions of leadership in society.”

The University of District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law is another example, as the University is committed to using law for public interest to help those in need. The University of District of Columbia has the largest clinical requirement of any American law school, requiring students to provide more than 700 hours of pro bono legal service, which students often fulfill by helping D.C. residents through direct hands-on work. In recognition of this feat, the U.S. News & World Report ranked the University as number seven in clinical training among all American law schools in 2014.

It is no surprise, then, that HBLSs have been extremely active in recent cases of police brutality involving African Americans. For instance, immediately following the grand juries’ decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Howard University Law students wrote an open letter urging for social change. Howard University School of Law also chose to aptly celebrate Constitution Day by establishing events centered on “insuring domestic tranquility,” as it relates to “criminal justice” and the “militarization of the police.” Elsewhere, North Carolina Central University law school students gathered in a rally, holding up their hands in support of Brown. Also in attendance was North Carolina Central University law professor and state NAACP Attorney Irving Joyner, who called for greater voter participation and involvement in community outreach programs in honor of Brown’s memory.

Thus, although small in number, HBLSs are extremely important because of their focus on diversity and social justice, something that all law schools in the nation and worldwide can learn from.

Elisa Chen completed her M.S.Ed. in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and was a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is now a Research Analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.