Black students made up about 3.17 percent of USF’s student population entering between 2007 and 2010, IPEDS reported. Six years later, in the spring of 2016, black students made up only 2.5 percent of USF’s graduates. USF’s new Black Acheivement and Student Engagement (BASE) Program, spearheaded by Professor Candice Harrison, is working to change that. “To me, if we’re not graduating black students at a rate consistent with their peers, then we are failing them. Period,” said Harrison, associate professor of history and faculty director of BASE. “Our job is to graduate our students, so obviously there is room for us to do better.”
The BASE Program, to begin this fall, will consist of a black student resource center, a Black Scholars program and a new living learning community intended for those participating in a flagship African American Studies curriculum. These initiatives hope to address issues that USF’s African American Scholars Project team found from over a year’s worth of research into black students’ experiences at USF.
“A lot of times it seems that when you talk to black folks – black folks who have graduated from college – what you hear from us is that we graduate in spite of our institution. Like we made it,” Harrison said. “I want black students to graduate because of this institution. And that means we have to change the institution.”
The BASE team’s research highlighted the root of most issues as being the underrepresentation of black students at USF and in San Francisco. “How do we recruit black students into a community where the black population of the city has been dwindling for the past several decades?” Harrison said.
Surveys, focus groups, conversations revealed that students – undergraduate and graduate alike – felt the effects of racial isolation. Racial isolation meant that many black students feel isolated from black faculty, staff, role models, mentors and other black students. “They have very diffused support systems,” Harrison said. “There is no centralization which meant that students often didn’t know who to go to, or who would be supportive. So they would just try and mitigate their problems on their own and then wind up not being successful.”
The Black Resource Center will be a physical space on campus following the model of the cultural center, according to Harrison, though the location is still to be decided. Freshman Shalieze Motley, who is Harrison’s student assistant and a member of the Black Student Union, said, “[It is meant to provide] resources and support – financially, academically, and mentally – that black students need.”
Harrison and Motley connected when Harrison advocated for Motley with the financial aid office after a tuition increase nearly pushed her to withdraw. “I know what it is like to ask USF for help and get told ‘no’ with little explanation and sympathy. I know my experience is a common narrative here on campus for many students, but many of those students are black,” Motley said. “Just the fact that there will be a place on campus dedicated to helping and supporting the black students here is so important because it lets the students know that the school is dedicated to helping them and recognizes that their needs are valid.”
Starting this fall, in addition to the resource center, ten high-achieving, black-identifying freshmen will be pioneers for the Black Scholars Program. These ten freshmen will come in as a cohort, receive full-tuition scholarships and live in the Black Living Learning community with 20 other student-scholars taking two semesters of African American Studies courses. The cohort of Black Scholars will have opportunities throughout all four years to be paired with mentors and alumni. Their junior and senior years, they will be placed in research assistantships or internships. Senior year, these ten students will use their skill sets and experiences to complete a capstone project together. The ten Black Scholars will collaborate on an interdisciplinary solution to a problem in the community that affects black students.
The other 20 students in the living learning community in Toler Hall will also engage with both the USF and outside communities through their required courses: “AAS 100: Black Activists and Visionaries” in the fall and “AAS 200: Community Engagement” in the spring, both taught by Harrison. The fall course will examine different definitions of “blackness” through the literary, academic and creative works of black visionaries, authors and artists throughout history. To emphasize an interdisciplinary approach, Harrison will bring in guest lectures from many departments. The spring class will partner with the McCarthy Center to explore the meaning of community and how it manifests, challenges and influences people’s lives. Students will also examine “the struggles of often-marginalized groups to build healthy and just communities,” the course description says. This will involve a historical research project in cooperation with an external organization, to be decided.
Harrison had proposed the idea of a Black Scholars Program years ago. Its funding had stalled the process, however. When the Black Student Union presented their demands to the school administration in 2015, the BASE team was assembled by Julie Orio, the Vice Provost of Student Life. The team consisted of Senior Associate Vice President of Development Preston Walton, Associate Dean for Social Sciences Pamela Balls-Organista, Associate Professor of Sociology Stephanie Sears and Harrison, who is now the Faculty Director.
Featured Photo: The new Black Achievement and Student Engagement hopes to remedy the graduation gap between black students and their peers. CULTURAL CENTERS AT UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO/FLICKR