Robert Kelly remembers his freshman year at the University of West Georgia well. Like many Black students new to the culture of the college campus, he felt lost. But thanks to the African-American Male Learning Community, he was drawn into a group of 25 young men aiming to meet the challenge together.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says the young man from Stratford, Conn. “But we came together, bonded and felt the comfort of having one another’s back. It eased us into the process of dealing with college studies, and as a result we stayed together.”
That African-American Male Learning Community, started four years ago by Dr. Said Sewell III, is part of the Center for African-American Male Research Success and Leadership. The center addresses challenges faced by Black male students in the academy through several initiatives, including a leadership development program and a precollege summer conference. Last year, the center and its learning community were honored by the Georgia Board of Regents with a “Best Practices” citation for innovation.
Unlike learning communities founded around various subjects, the program is focused on Black males, a student segment that has been plagued nearly everywhere by high dropout rates in the freshman year, according to a statewide study by the board of regents. Other elements of West Georgia’s retention program help students keep up and push harder toward graduation success.
The good news, say West Georgia officials, is that Black male students introduced to the school through the center, have stayed in school, drawn better grades than before, and in various ways shown better adjustment to college. Obviously growing in comfort and self-confidence, they have shown exceptional leadership skills. Six of them have been elected to the student senate. School records indicate that the mean grade point average for students involved in the center’s learning community is a 3.0, while that of Black male students who are not involved is a 2.65. Additionally, of the 25 Black male students who enrolled in the initiative four years ago, 22 are still enrolled at UWG.
Robert Kelly, who landed with a sense of unease on the Carrollton, Ga., campus in 2005, is president of the Student Government Association. He is serving his second term. Kelly, on a roll academically, dreams of a Rhodes Scholarship and advanced studies in psychology.
Kelly and others continue to lead center initiatives, while Sewell, a political science professor, is on leave this semester to complete two books on Black male college success. Moreover, the young men of West Georgia, in a fraternal spirit, run a mentoring program for seventh-grade Black boys at Carrollton Middle School, which has already shown progress and improved attitudes among youngsters at that turning point in their lives.
Dressing the Part
The program comprises a combination of both style and substance, says Sewell. The Texas native recalls his first days at West Georgia in 2001, when he encountered a young man with sagging pants and an aimless air about him. He posed a question to the youngster: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a banker,” the student replied.
“If you can find a banker who looks like you, I’ll buy you dinner,” said Sewell. His counseling and the success he had with the young man convinced him a broader, organized effort might redeem others who seemed to be drop-out candidates.
The learning community, which is for first-year students who take all of their classes together, has helped the self-image and retention of Black students at West Georgia, where the student enrollment is 25 percent Black — some of them commuters from the nearby metro Atlanta area.
The learning community program includes a weekly class meeting where students talk about their problems, emphasize adjustment, organize group studies and stress the importance of personal appearance.
“The pride in appearance goes hand in hand with pride and striving for success,” says Sewell.
The Center for African-American Male Research Success and Leadership features activities to foster a sense of history and the importance of Black culture, with enrichment activities like visits to the Martin Luther King Center in downtown Atlanta, the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and more. And, this year, the guys traveled to Toronto to examine the north terminus of the Underground Railroad, to Panama to visit the Canal, which was built in large part by Black laborers. Plans for this academic year include a trip to South Africa.
Another center program is the Martin Luther King Lecture, in which Black thinkers and role models come to speak about strengthening Black men to be successful, raise solid families and to lead. Some prominent speakers include Dr. Cornel West, professor of religion at Princeton University, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University.
Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna, president of West Georgia, praises the efforts to promote the presence of Black students, but says this was only part of the campaign for diversity; he would like to boost diversity among West Georgia faculty, which is 6 percent Black. A pioneer in his own right, Sethna in 1994 became the first East Indian to head a university.
In the university bulletin, The Journey, published by the minority affairs office, he said: “In racial terms, we have a great, diverse student body, as far as African-American students are concerned. However our student success in African-Americans is not well reflected in our faculty and professional staff.
“We would like to have far more African-American faculty. The reason we do not have more is not for want of trying. There are far too few Ph.D. African-American individuals in the pipeline.” For more information, visit http://www.westga.edu
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