Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Retaining "Minority" Students

Each year as I speak at colleges (usually white evangelical institutions) about things related to urban ministry, the topic of racial diversity, or the lack of it, comes up.  

Occasionally -- often in fact -- school administrators tell me how hard they are trying to recruit and retain students.  Usually this means that a couple of people on the staff with a passion for it, sometimes under the direction of a school president who shares this passion, are working with recruitment and student retention.  

The numbers are staggering about how few minority students make it through.  The Urban Educational Institute says that only 2.5% of Hispanic and African American boys in Chicago will complete a 4 year college degree by the age of 25.  When you consider that this includes a VAST majority of such graduates making it through state schools and HBCUs, private evangelical institutions are failing abysmally at successfully providing education to about 25% of our country - most of whom come from higher than national average religiously committed communities.  

These schools are often in close proximity to an urban area that has much higher percentage of Hispanic and Black residents. Yet they are very white institutions graduating even whiter graduating classes. 

Next week I will be speaking with a faculty group about this issue.  Because it has funding implications for these schools it is a high priority.  I'll share some thoughts and invite your comments.

At the heart of the issue are a series of things all of which come back to what the institution understands and values.  

  1. Culture-blindness.  The institutions neither understand, nor value Black or Hispanic culture.  They might even dress up some of the worship or school's art exhibits but beyond this they rarely go out of the way to learn, value, appreciate or celebrate the culture.  Students often feel not just "not valued" but often devalued.  The institutions often think they are culture or color neutral, which demonstrate the collective blindness and lack of understanding. 
  2. Sense of Safety.  In my experience when one crosses cultural boundaries it leads to feeling unsafe until one begins to understand the culture -- truly speak the language so to speak -- or perhaps when a truly trustworthy person acts as an ambassador in a highly personal way.  "Where should we go on vacation?" for a white family is a very different question for that of a black family.  Whites, as the dominant culture assume the whole country is fair game, safe, approachable. .  . except for urban neighborhoods possibly.  But students from minority communities are likely to feel unsafe in a cornfield, where many of these institutions exist.  The cornfield example is just one of many I could highlight. . . but this gets back to the lack of understanding that most white institutions exhibit.  Good intentions don't overcome this.  Inside the institution there are many, many other things that are prone to create a lack of sense of safety, a discomfort, a distrust.  This discomfort or fear makes staying focused on school a huge challenge. How long would you stay in a place where you fear you will be treated unfairly, you feel discomfort, or sense there are lots of unwritten rules no one is sharing with you?
  3. The lack of cultural interpreters.  These institutions usually have precious few people who are around (classrooms, athletic fields, lunch rooms, hallways, dorms, etc..) who can help Black/Hispanic students understand, laugh about, negotiate, and express healthy anger about the context they find themselves in.    This has to do with economics as much as race.  The cultural jump from a low income household to a middle class or upper middle class school environment is as tough as the racial span. 
  4. Lack of retention of minority faculty.  
  5. Lack of minority leadership.
  6. Lack of sacrificing sacred cows. 
  7. The donor base. 
  8. Racial and Cultural isolation of faculty.
  9. Theological and Sociological arrogance. 
I would love to ask those of you who have braved this territory a few questions:

1.   If you as a minority made it through, what was the thing that helped you most? 
2. If you didn't, what was the biggest factor(s)?
3. What is the thing you find most troublesome about your experience?
4.  Want to share a crazy story?


Anonymous said...

The term 'minority' turns me away. We as Christians need to stop using worldly terms in addressing our brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe you treat people in the way you think of them. You think minority, then that's how you will treat me.

The Institutues don't take time out of their busy schedule to get to know the communities that are close to them except the one they are in. Moody Bible Institute is one. They send PCMs with the mindset we are saving or helping 'These People'. We don't need them, they need us to complete their PCMs.

Also, our white sisters and brothers need to stop thinking they are doing us a favor by giving up their lives from where ever they come and trying to change our culture case in point white missionaries who go over to Africa, South America and so called 'third world countries'.

Personally, God has given missionaries a unique opportunity to serve Him in areas outside of theirs and they should treat it as such and not as helping these 'minorities'. That's degrading and I don't serve a degrading God.

Just my 2 cents.

JudyBright said...

Are leaders receptive to what you have to say regarding this subject? I'm curious about the reaction you get or what their motives seem to be.

Steve said...

I'm "urban white" (grew up in the city) and Moody, as much as I love it, frustrates the life out of me. I feel like a pork chop at a Jewish wedding there sometimes.

How much more for nonwhites?

You nailed it , Joel.

I have sent a number of my students there over the years, and the ones who have thrived are those who were exposed to a variety of cultures before college (an increasingly common phenomenon among urban youth). Kids who came from all-Latin or all Black neighborhoods and schools struggled intensely.

But the onus is on the schools to fix that, not the kids so much, and the schools are, as you put it Joel, failing abysmally.

To answer your question, Judy, leadership has not been responsive in my limited experience. Thus my frustration, particularly with Moody. Wheaton has been a bit better, but both are way behind the curve. It's inexcusable.

hammerdad said...

Anon: you said, "They send PCMs with the mindset we are saving or helping 'These People'. We don't need them, they need us to complete their PCMs"

To me that is a devastating and true critique. It's also true of minority student campus participation. If non-white students are only on campus to fulfill the schools quota this whole thing will continue to fail.

Judy I agree with Steve about the leadership question. There are usually a few folks on any campus who really get it and and are willing to hear and work on it. Those are usually the ones that have personal ties or first hand experience with cross cultural relationships. But the vast majority of such faculty live in racially isolated places, attend racially isolated churches, have very homogenous work, school, family, worship experiences and so don't have a real interest in a long term, slow, painful learning process around race and culture.

But the economic motivation is putting pressure on some to change. . . not a great motive but perhaps more effective than . . . dare I say it? . . . .love.

Steve said...

How do we break through, Joel?

hammerdad said...

I have a lot of thoughts but no coherent plan. One things I've tried to do is to look for places to speak up.

It runs the risk for making you or others seem like an "expert" which I always disclaim. But whenever I start down the road of explaining to largely white audiences about our collective ignorance about race, and then check in with my black friends they encourage me to continue.

I can always "get away" with explaining things in fairly plain terms that they can't.

So speaking up is first. Actively looking for places to speak up in which we have credibility. Then is the question of what to say. . .

Institutional learning is a long slow process. Even with Dr. Stowell there the learning curve was slow (and I give him huge credit for intent if low level of effect). As this is just one more aspect/venue for racial reconciliation we can't be in a hurry, nor can we tire easily, nor be rebuffed easily. Keep the conversation going.

Steve said...

Good word. We have taken a similar approach in some of the Baptist groups we associate with. We keep on hanging in there and trusting that there is long-term profit for the Kingdom in the relationship.

There are times when you question your sanity though... it seems that few really listen (and not that we can't learn some thngs too).

What if all of us - Black people, White people, Christian leaders, were all open to learning more?

Especially those of us in the majority culture...

It might be good to cultivate relationships with people in key positions, too. That's something I need to be much more intentional about - but who has time?

It's tough, man.

Aaron said...
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