Ga. University Learning Community Focuses on Black Freshman Women - Higher Education
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Ga. University Learning Community Focuses on Black Freshman Women

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by Katti Gray

When near-naked video dancers, hostile housewives and basketball players’ brawling ex-mates are posited as the new norm, some young women—even college co-eds—get confused about what constitutes appropriate behavior, said Marian Muldrow, a University of West Georgia English professor.

Case in point: A first-year student in the African-American Female Learning Community that Muldrow launched this fall recently shared her reaction to an overly noisy dormitory mate. “So, she yells,” said Muldrow, replaying what her student conveyed about the tiff, “‘if I hear you talking that loud one more time, I’m going to scream.’”

“Really?” Muldrow added. “How does that make the situation any better?”

At 29, Muldrow is a decade older than the aforementioned freshman and 20 other students in her all-Black, all-female learning community, a project aimed at easing these first-year students’ transition into college life and at helping them better connect collegiate endeavors to their overall life experiences, explorations and goals.

Indeed, televised housewives gone wild and rump-shaking videos, as subject matter, are as integral to classroom discussions as Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” contemporary poet Allison Joseph’s Imitation of Life, or neo-soul singer Jill Scott’s lyricism. All are on the reading list in one of two classes Muldrow teaches in the learning community, whose students are taking five courses this semester.

“Everything in this curriculum is centered around them,” Muldrow said, “so that they can feel part of the campus, not be so insecure as students, and not fall into the [social] stereotypes like the ones we address in class.”

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If singer Miguel’s “Quickie”— some have dismissed the video as soft porn—heralds loveless relations and sexual orgies, why is that so? “We talk about that kind of thing in class,” Muldrow said. “We ask, ‘Why not be a part of changing that?’”

“We are trying to discover the positive aspects in an African-American woman’s life, instead of the stereotypes,” said Michelle Capri Powell, one of Muldrow’s freshmen majoring in sociology. “She teaches in a way that is most interesting; she has us find proof to back up our thoughts or beliefs.”

Not that the learning community is merely a course in social and cultural activism, she added. Its aim, in part, is to use the history, literature, communications and psychology courses in which the 21 are enrolled—they also live in the same dormitory—as a backdrop for academically contemplating old traditions, themes, facts and new ones.

Since West Georgia’s first learning community started in 1998, the number of such projects has risen to 12. They center on, among other topics, international relations, all-male backpacking and camping, Black males, women’s wellness, pre-engineering, global engagement and the nations of North America.

Students who enroll in the learning communities and West Georgia’s other first-year initiatives, including the honors and emerging leaders programs, show higher retention rates between the freshmen and sophomore years—80 percent versus 74 percent—than for those who don’t opt to enroll, said Helen Diamond Steele, director of West Georgia’s First-Year Experience.

“The schedules require a lot of commitment, and some students simply cannot commit to that,” Steele said, of the optional first-year programs. But for those who do? “The idea is if you foster relationships on this level … you’re more engaged in life of a university. Your critical-thinking skills are improved …,” she added.

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As a learning community director, Muldrow advises students on which courses to take. She schedules special events and guest speakers, ranging from specialists in sexual health to policing and personal safety. She requires the young women to journal weekly: “Sometimes they’re generic topics: How was your first week on campus? Which courses seem difficult? Set five goals to meet before college graduation,” Muldrow said.

Other journal prompts: “If you dance to the beat of your own drum, what does that sound like? What is your reality, and who determines it?” Muldrow added.

“The whole point is to get them thinking outside the box, being more aware of how they present themselves, knowing how to write an effective argument academically,” Muldrow explained.

Her students said the program is making a difference.

“All of my classmates and I can have a civilized class discussion about the society’s view on African-Americans in general, and we all are on the same terms. Even though we have known each other for a few weeks, I feel the sisterhood forming and this amazes me,” said Aquinta McCloud-Speer, an early childhood education major.

Back when Muldrow was a West Georgia undergraduate—she earned bachelor’s, master’s and educational specialist degrees there—she was deeply troubled by what she described as the relative reticence of Black women classmates.

Though Black men traditionally comprise less of West Georgia’s overall enrollment—and face their own particular challenges—they often tended to speak up more readily in class than Black females. Also as an undergraduate, she’d befriended what she deemed as several promising Black women students who ended up not making the grade.

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“They weren’t doing the work or couldn’t do the work. They ended up on academic probation; they dropped out,” Muldrow said. “But I couldn’t help wondering: ‘If other students are graduating, why can’t they?’”

Those concerns—and having been taught by professors “in classrooms [where] you didn’t have to be afraid of what tumbled out of your mouth”—led Muldrow to propose the learning community.

“I know it’s only a group of 21. … But at least we can position ourselves to feel better about ourselves and to do better in college,” Muldrow said, noting that she’s also a wife, with a 20-month-old baby.

“I’ve been where they’ve been,” she added. “I’ve conformed to other people’s standards, felt uncomfortable, awkward and out of place. I’d not wanted to speak out in class, even if I had something to say. ‘What if it comes out sounding crazy and stupid?’ I want to show them what they can achieve … and that you can have it all. A marriage, a child, a career … and college degrees.”

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