Freshmen Retention Rates at HBCUs Indicate Success of First-Generation College Students


Charmaine E. Troy

On December 31, 2014, an article by Liz Riggs titled “First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind” appeared in The Atlantic. The article painted a bleak picture of incoming first-generation students admitted to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as being academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. The article also criticized HBCUs as being ill-equipped to prepare first-generation students to face the challenges and obstacles that come with becoming acclimated to campus culture, which eventually leads to poor graduation rates. However, these critiques regarding graduation rates fail to accurately convey the whole picture and it is important to highlight the resilient freshmen retention rates of some HBCUs and HBCUs overall.

Most critiques of graduation rates at HBCU are based on the statistic that only 11% of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will obtain their college degree within six years. While this argument may be valid based on sound data, it is also important to acknowledge that between fall 2008 and fall 2011, the U.S. News & World Report reported that four HBCUs had freshmen retention rates above 80%. Moreover, between fall 2009 and fall 2012, 12 HBCUs reported that more than 70% of students return after their first year. Among the 12 schools with the highest retention rate for first-year students, the average was 77%.

Many HBCUs are known for enrolling a high number of first-generation students who need academic remediation. However, HBCUs have a legacy of providing increased access to underserved students and often implement innovative strategies to support student success among first-generation students. Reported innovative strategies include success coaching, early alert programming, summer bridge programming for at risk students, pre-entry remedial programming, academic advisement tutorial services, first year experience programming, peer mentoring, peer tutoring, pre-orientation workshops, academic programming within residential halls, and the utilization of technology. HBCUs continue to provide remedial courses to students in addition to providing a supportive climate for first-generation students to grow.

While reported challenges faced by HBCUs include systematic and sustained campus initiatives to increase graduation rates, first-generation students often also face financial challenges and failure to socially integrate into campus culture. Rendon, Jalomo, and Nora (2004)’s concept of dual socialization recognizes the institution’s commitment to helping its students socially integrate within campus culture. When students fail to experience academic or social involvement at their institution, they are more likely to drop out. The high freshmen retention rates of HBCUs demonstrate the institution’s ability to effectively help their first-generation students integrate into their respective campus cultures. It also speaks to the institution’s ability to share the responsibility of helping students to socially integrate within their institution.

HBCUs continue to play an important role in reducing some of the barriers that hinder academic progress. The outcome of implementing effective retention programming for first-generation students will provide HBCU leaders with better insight on the academic challenges that first-generation students face and help them to implement best practices to improve freshmen retention outcomes.

Charmaine E. Troy is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education at Morgan State University.

Pragmatic Language Skills: African-American College Students


Vanessa Raynor

Decreased enrollment and retention of students has been a significant issue for most historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once a student enters the school, the university must find ways to keep them interested. Several students report they leave because of lack of support from university professors and advisors. If the university advisor is the initial point of connection to the student’s education, it is imperative that communicative exchanges are concise, relatable, and entertaining.

I have personally believed that most students are not taught to adequately communicate in varied social situations. They become comfortable in their own communicative group and are unable to approach people in different social groups. They are not willing to make themselves uncomfortable for fear of others’ negative responses. Pragmatic language is an aspect of communication that impacts a person’s ability to appropriately use language socially across varied situations).

Pragmatic language refers to varied linguistic skills including the initiation and termination of conversations; topic introduction, maintenance, and change; code switching; appropriate turn-taking skills; courteousness; and comprehension and demonstration of nonverbal aspects of language such as appropriate tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions). Research on pragmatic language skills of African-American children has determined that those identified and displayed delayed aspects of pragmatic language are viewed as being problematic and decrease fitting interpersonal communication skills.

There is little to no research available on the pragmatic language skills of the African-American college students attending HBCUs. The African-American college student displays particular delayed aspects of pragmatic language including the lack of topic maintenance, inadequate turn-taking during conversations, abrupt disruptions, and inappropriate tone of voice, which is viewed as inappropriate classroom decorum and impedes the learning experience for themselves as well as their peers. Without pragmatic language competence, there is difficulty integrating into peer groups, which affects their degree of self-confidence and happiness, in their environment.

Inadequate pragmatic language skills are linked to poor student engagement and success. It is difficult to manage success if students are inactively engaged academically and interpersonally. If an individual is unable to have a conversation, he or she will be incapable of establishing a relationship with peers in the community and experience difficulty initiating and maintaining those relationships, which in effect decreases student retention rates. Ineffective communication builds ineffective communicative partnerships in all social settings. If an individual does not exhibit a vast vocabulary, he or she may not converse with people of varied cultural backgrounds; demonstrate difficulty comprehending words; exhibit decreased word retrieval skills; and display problems in writing sentences that are grammatically and semantically correct with varied lengths.

Students with language impairments require supports that help them increase their conversational skills, which may include developing one’s opinion on topics, determining when to respond, and establishing a set number of comments during a dialogue. Lacking those skills decreases interpersonal success, which decreases retention rates of African-American college students. The student with decreased pragmatic language skills will experience decreased success at the university level because they will avoid social circumstances that necessitate practical communication. Those social circumstances include meetings with academic advisors and professors, group projects with peers, oral presentations, and major admittance interviews. If the student is unable to demonstrate appropriate, effective, and precise communication that conveys pertinent information to their communicative partner, their interpersonal life at the university level is limited to social isolation. A student that has not been exposed to a variety of literacy in a vocabulary rich environment will experience difficulty writing and speaking during oral presentations using a complex words, synonyms, and antonyms.

There are several factors that influence retention rates including life events experienced prior to college and academic abilities demonstrated in high school. However, a student’s pragmatic language skills affect their ability to function academically (e.g., faculty meetings, group projects, advising, campus resources), socially (e.g., service learning, informal contact with faculty), organizationally (e.g., orientation programs, financial aid, registration, service and social organizations), and environmentally (e.g., parental support, transfers, off campus jobs). Establishing a link between pragmatic language and student success is vital to student engagement, retention, and success, as it will increase African-American college students’ ability to effectively convey messages with meaning without displaying avoidance tactics when communicating in new social groups.

Vanessa Raynor has been a professor at Shaw University for 5 years and holds the position of Program Coordinator for the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program in the Department of Allied Health Professions.

Three Things Melissa Wooten Misinterpreted While Analyzing Dillard University’s Suits and Ties Initiative and Other Black Colleges

A photo of Dakarai Moton for his response to Why dress and appearance matter at black colleges, an op-ed in on The Conversation by Melissa E. Wooten.

Dakarai Moton

After carefully reading and attempting to digest the skewed representation of Dillard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Melissa Wooten’s, “Why dress and appearance matter at black colleges,” much that has been addressed and presented has been falsely applied to substantiate educational and professional platforms and exhibit bias. Thus, throughout this article, I will pen the just dialogue that accepts the harsh truths, nullifies biased opinions, and offsets dysconscious attitudes that question the purpose of black colleges that “interrupt the calculus of human (un) worthiness.”

  1. Respectability Politics is not/ was not a concern.

Respectability politics has been characterized as the “attempt [of] marginalized groups to demonstrate their acceptance of mainstream values rather than to challenge the mainstream for failing to accept difference.”

Dillard University’s Suits and Ties initiative was a student led initiative started by Mr. Dillard University 2012-2013, and has been continued ever since its initiation. This immediately debunks the rumored existence of ‘respectability politics’’ circulation around Dillard University’s Suits and Ties initiative and marginalizes the concept that black colleges and universities are mainstream conformists.

From a historical and slavery-ridden perspective, it is not the mission of the student or institution to recreate or restore white values with one’s own black values at black colleges, but it is more so the role of the institution to learn and create spaces of humanity as opposed to repurposing dated color lines that are not as clear, but still exist.

  1. “Through education, service and moral living, “the race” could uplift itself to the position of whites.”

Quite frankly, this poorly fashioned metric used to support the purpose of why, “Black Lives Matter,” at black colleges and universities does not even work for “un-marginalized” groups. There is no guarantee that color, or lack thereof, will “save” someone from the negative stereotypes and perpetuate them into the person they feel entitled to be. In every walk of life, every nation, and every society, there is a standard of guidelines and expectations. Being that the purpose of a collegiate education is to support the manifestation of dreams that a high school diploma does not, every college and university has their campus catalysts that promote the growth of students so that they are able to meet the needs of the society to which they live. This is not a black issue or an issue that black colleges and universities face.

  1. “You have to do more to receive the same amount of respect.”

As the oh-so-familiar quote suggests, the dialogue that impedes the discussion of respectability politics is the simple fact that, “’marginalized’ groups have to do more to receive the same amount of respect.” A woman of color in academia at a predominantly white institution would be a prime example of the work that needs to be done in the face of frequent turmoil due to the un-budging color lines in a glass ceiling society where color matters, image matters, and most important the work that you do matters. Shortly, this is for many reasons why Dillard University’s Suits and Ties Initiative matters and ultimately why, “Black Lives Matter.”

Dakarai R. Moton is a senior at Dillard University majoring in biology. He is president of the Minority Association of Pre-medical Students and the president of the Health Occupations Students of America: Future Health Professionals. He is also Mr. Dillard University 2015-2016.



Big-Time Strategies for Increasing Funding for MSIs: The Time is Right


Karen Gross

Recently, much ink has been spilled over two “situations” in higher education: large multi-million dollar donations to institutions that already have enormous endowments and huge fees paid to the hedge fund managers who generate revenue for large university endowments. Both events have led to commentary, much of it critical of the reality that the rich just seem to get richer and the institutions that serve many low-income students remain without needed resources.

All of these conversations, of course, pertain to a long-lasting problem in higher education: how to redistribute financial resources to the students and institutions that need it most. In the absence of Robin Hood, we need to reflect on what legal or policy changes would generate new dollars, shift the allocation of resources and alter private giving patterns such that institutions that serve our most vulnerable students receive the financial support they need. Of course, in exchange, we want these institutions to have positive outcomes, to increase retention and graduation rates and to offer quality education at a fair cost. We are painfully aware that the graduation rates of Pell eligible students do not match those of non-Pell eligible students, a result confirmed by newly released data.

One timely suggestion comes from a recent NexusResearch report that says it is time for large endowments to be taxed and for the newly generated revenue to be deployed to fund successful student support programs across the nation. In essence, this would institutionalize a form of wealth redistribution, and one assumes many small colleges and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) would be the beneficiaries of these revenues.

There is one other critical trend change. With considerable support from the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama, there has been a large effort to research and address what is known as under matching, where well-qualified, low-income students settle for less competitive colleges. Although there is research supporting the reality that qualified low-income students are enrolling at institutions that are ranked “below” their intellectual capacity, there is now a recognition that this particular issue does not merit all our time and attention, despite its emphasis on the new College Scorecard. Even if undermatching were totally remediated, the vast number of low-income students will not enroll at the top 100 colleges and universities in our nation. It is best to spend our energies on strategies that can affect literally millions of students.

Here’s the new reality that is finally becoming clear to more and more policy makers, legislators and even some presidential candidates: large numbers of Pell eligible students are being served by “non-elite” colleges and universities. There are also new data showing that, contrary to popular belief, non-elite small and mid-sized colleges are generally doing a good job with their low-income student populations. But it is also critically clear that these institutions do not have large endowments and struggle to make ends meet. They are fiscally challenged; the recent stories on Cheyney University make this very point. They often have low alumni giving rates. These are the very institutions, many of which are MSIs, which deserve more revenue. These are the institutions serving the students of today and tomorrow.

Certainly, there is no one solution here. But, here is a suggestion that has not, as of yet, garnered much steam but that could change donor behavior. It has been inspired in part by the work of Sunstein and Thaler related to “nudges,” particularly in the area of financial decision-making. In short, I think there is a role for paternalism (or maternalism) in how we reward charitable giving.

Before turning to my suggestion, I want to share a part of a Letter to the Editor written by Charlotte Dobbs (a well-known soprano) in response to Victor Fleischer’s much referenced and critiqued Op-Ed in the New York Times on how colleges hoard money. Her letter, too, inspired my thinking. She said and I quote: “Big-ticket donors considering giving to Harvard or Yale should consider giving their money to innovators like the Bard Prison Initiative, which reduces recidivism and transforms lives by bringing rigorous higher education to inmates; historically black colleges and midlevel colleges that serve low-income students…”

Start with this reality: for those who itemize deductions, we have a one-size fits all approach to charitable giving. Under our tax code, donors get a tax deduction for permitted donations without regard to whether the non-profit to which they are giving actually needs (rather than just wants) the money. To be sure, the value of a donation to a particular donor varies depending on their tax bracket (the richer you are, the more valuable the deduction). But, the point is that whether you give to a tiny non-profit food bank in your local community or to a well-heeled church or to a university with a billion dollar endowment, the tax rules remain the same. The benefits colleges and universities receive has been and continues to be a subject of interest to state and federal legislators, with a hearing in the House anticipated during the week of Oct. 7th, 2015.

Try this counter-solution: abandon the current rules on charitable deductions. Instead, amend the tax laws to create a sliding scale with respect to deductibility of donations so that those who donate to small institutions that serve, say, at least 40% (pick your number) Pell eligible students get a larger tax deduction (again, pick your number) than those who donate to institutions with endowments over X dollars. The goal is to incentivize Charlotte Dobbs’ above-referenced suggestion and “nudge” folks into giving to institutions that previously would not have expected their largess.

Determining the gradations that should be incorporated into the sliding deductibility scale can be the matter of considerable debate. If you get a 50% deduction (the current ceiling) for giving to an institution with a small endowment (say under $10 million) and 45% enrolled Pell-grant recipients, then perhaps you only get a 25% deduction if you give to an institution with an endowment over $1 billion. Discussion needs to ensue over how to structure the proposed scale with an emphasis on the determining the economic consequences of the proposal.

This approach has some similarities to, but even larger differences from, the sliding excise tax on large endowments recommended by the NexusResearch study previously mentioned. Yes, both approaches are trying to move money into the hands of institutions that need it and that serve vulnerable students. Both approaches recognize the need to redistribute wealth. Both want to encourage giving, something currently done through our approach to taxation.

But, these two approaches have vastly different incentive structures embedded within them. The NexusResearch proposal literally takes money away from large endowments and gives it to the government to redistribute; donors are not affected as they will still receive the full deduction. And, to encourage support of students at the institution to which the donor is giving, this proposal does allow institutions an offset to the excise tax owed with monies spent on student financial aid (at their own institution).

In other words, changing the structure of how the Tax Code treats deductions should not be aimed at institutions but rather aimed at donors. We should seek to change donor behavior in large or small ways. We should incentivize donors by expanding where they give and how much they give. We should preserve individual donor choice and allow private individuals to decide where their largess goes. There would be no government collection of monies; nor would there be a reallocation based on some to-be-determined destinations for the excise tax revenue. One can only picture the fight that would occur over who is entitled to the excise tax receipts.

It seems to me that MSIs are positioned to make quality public arguments in favor of changes in the law that allow them to be the recipient of more monies to educate students. Revising our approach to charitable giving is one way to accomplish this end. But, we all know that while giving is good, givers do value the accompanying economic benefits. And, the psychic benefits of giving, which one assumes must exist and are robust, are enhanced if MSIs can share their stories and their successes.

One could make a somewhat different suggestion along the same lines as those presented here: super-deductions for gifts given to those institutions that meet certain qualifications (such as endowments below $X or status as a MSI or some other criteria). This idea would reward giving even more and not deter giving to institutions that appeal to donors, regardless of those institutions’ need for added revenue.

How likely is any legislative change to the tax laws? Not very likely, but it is as likely as many changes that are currently being proposed. All you need are a couple of senators and one presidential candidate or two and the ball gets rolling. Or, one brave foundation that makes the case and pushes for change. It’s worth the effort. Even in the absence of change, donors will see this debate and perhaps that, in and of itself, will encourage behavioral change. There is no downside to trying and plenty of upside.

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College, a former Senior Policy Advisor for the U.S. Department of Education. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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.