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EMU launches "learning community" for black male college students

Eastern Michigan University
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Eastern Michigan University

Updated:

Black men have some of the lowest graduation rates among college students.

Nationally, just 33% of them finish their degrees within six years.

At Eastern Michigan University, it's even lower: around 18%, according to their numbers from 2004-2006.

“We have [about 1500] black males. We can’t connect with all of them, but we can cast a wide net.”

EMU likes to boast about their diverse student body – one of the “most diverse in the Midwest,” according to the school’s website.

And to an extent, the numbers do back them up.

With about 19,000 students, African Americans make up 21% of EMU’s campus.

Compare that with similar schools, like Central Michigan University or Western. They have roughly the same sized student bodies, but only 7%-11% of their students are black.

So EMU’s Reginald Barnes is hopeful.

He’s the director of Diversity and Community Involvement, and for years he’s been laying the groundwork for this new program, researching what other schools do and what the research says about first generation students, as well as men of color.

“What we want to do is develop a success-driven model,” says Barnes. “So that we can give them an idea of what they need to do to achieve, as opposed to the negative things they need to overcome. They already know that. We’re not saying that you’re deficient in this area so we need to come in and fix you. We need to say ‘You are powerful, you are confident, you are assured of yourself. These are the things we know you can do.’”

“If they don’t know what they need to do, then how can we hold them accountable?”

If black men are also the first generation in their family to attend or finish college, then like any first generation student, they may not have had anyone tell them the unspoken rules about how to do well at college.

Barnes says that’s why any successful program is going to have to tackle things that other students might think are obvious: for every hour you’re in class, you should be studying for two, that kind of thing.

And the new program will try to tackle something even trickier: How do you get guys who may have been brought up to rely on themselves, to ask for help?

“Many times, because of where men of color come from, they are very unsure about how to establish relationships with other men that look like them,” says Barnes. “I know because I’m from the same type of neighborhood, with low-income, a single parent, majority black environment. And you don’t see a lot of examples about how to do things the right way. Many times they grew up with the mentality that I’m going to do this for myself, when often times they don’t connect with other people who can help them and that limits their ability."

“We’re trying to get them to the point where they can feel comfortable connecting with other people, that they don’t have to mistrust their white professor, thinking that they’re against them. They can manage interpersonal conflict, be it with another student or a professor. “

“They’ll be learning how to overcome barriers together, and hopefully graduate together.”

Barnes says over the last several years, they’ve started various programs that addressed this issues – but never a full on, learning community or cohort.

That was on purpose, he says.

They wanted to wait until those other programs produced mentors, who could connect new students to resources around campus.

Now, they’re hoping that the new program’s participants will be able to connect and start even taking classes together from day one.

“We have created a program through which we will connect with students from the time they come in,” says Barnes. “They can take classes together, basically a learning community where they’re learning to overcome barriers together, and hopefully they can graduate together as well.” 

We revised the number of black males Barnes says attend EMU, after he sent us an email telling us his count was off. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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