It has been suggested that one of the major reasons for African American (AA) students lack of success in predominantly white institutions (PWI) of higher learning is due to a feeling of alienation from the environment. Others include lack of academic readiness, particularly in Math and English, lack of financial solvency, and feelings of academic unfairness. Tinto has argued quite convincingly that for students to succeed within the higher education environment, it is necessary for them to begin a process of leaving the rules and mores of their home environment and adopt to and adapt those of the accepting environment. It has been proposed that those students who adapt well have a higher probability of success that those who do not. One can easily see how the relationship between alienation and lack of success (drop-out/stop-out) might follow naturally. It is rare that someone would stay or be retained in an environment where he/she doesn’t feel wanted/appreciated/worthwhile/desired.
Coleman has argued that the development of the skills of bicultural competence, the ability to successfully negotiate and navigate the dominant culture, may act as a buffer (or have a mitigating effect) thereby supporting AA student success – not withstanding all the other aforementioned challenges. In other words, acquiring and practicing the skills of bicultural competence may enhance a student’s potential for success. Gutter investigated a number of high-achieving AA women. She concluded that these women had employed the skills of bicultural competence, and that these skills were seen as supportive to their success in the work environment.
A study of 10 successful male AA students argues against both. Ten successful male AA students shared in individual interviews, the factors that they felt contributed to their academic success. Each of these students was a second semester sophomore in good academic standing, none of whom was a transfer.
Findings: Yes, the feelings of unfairness and alienation were real, but (a) the students suggested that they were expected, (b) the feelings were used as a motivation to persist, (c) much of it was self-selected – these students searched for and/or created an enclave of emotional safety engaging in the larger environment to satisfy specific needs and only when necessary (tutoring, ask a question), and (d) in direct opposition to Tinto’s assertion, each of these students kept very tight bonds with their home families (parents, siblings, friends). In essence, a bridge was created; one pillar within a “safe” enclave on campus, the other a firm planting in their home community. None of the students alluded to the use of bicultural competence as a navigating skill. It does not mean that the skills were not employed. We may argue that knowing whom to ask and for what, could be seen as employing some aspect of biculturalism.
It is also of interest to note that 8 of these 10 students were first-generation – neither of their parents had completed a higher education degree. There was a very strong thread of doing it (being successful, not dropping out) for the community, for friends who never got the opportunity, for younger or older siblings, for absent parents.
Only one of the students spoke about doing it for himself, and he was one of only two second-generation students. The other second-generation student spoke of his family’s expectations and that two of his elder siblings were medical doctors. He was an African immigrant.
We may want to revisit some of our earlier assertions of AA student success in PWIs.