Archive for August, 2009

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.

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Checking the Ethnic Box

flag_of_IranIt was December 23rd 2007 I believe.  It was that one rainy Christmas a few years ago – the one where snow didn’t fall until around December 27th.   It was raining really hard.  A bucket per drop is what we say in the islands. Next to me, sometimes sprinting behind me in hurried steps was an Iranian girl, a high school senior looking/hoping to be admitted to her neighborhood University.  It is clearly one of the best Universities in the United States.  That, plus the reality that her family culture would not allow her to go away to college, makes this a very anxiety laden afternoon.   Her acceptance letter had not yet come. 

Her family had migrated to the US relatively recently.  They had checked the White box. 

You see, there are all these boxes you can check as you enter high school, as you move toward college…every time you apply for anything there is an ethnicity box to check.  Relative to US law, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistani’s, Indians etcetera are considered White.  So they check the ethnic box next to White.

We are absolutely soaked.  We hustle through Pharmacy to meet with the Dean.  We meet with the Associate Dean.  The Dean’s not available.  The Associate Dean was very kind and quite personable.   She says that there is nothing she can do, and wishes us successful travels. 

The parking lot is flooding by the time we exit the building.  I motion to her to remain within the building until I bring the truck around.  She wades across, climbs into the front seat and we head toward the main building on campus. 

The parking lot is pretty deserted.  It is two days before Christmas.  It is raining.  It is flooding.  Folks need to get out to their homes and families.  We enter a side door that I am most familiar with.  The elevator is uncomfortably cold and slow this evening.  We exit, cross the hall and drip into the office of an old friend. 

We greet each other with careful hugs.  I relate my story.  After some thinking and processing, she makes a call to another building and sends us on our way.

It no longer matters.  I am not going to be soaked to the skin for nothing.  We are following any lead and creating others where none existed prior.  We head down the hill and across campus to the building she directed.  We have our pick of parking spots.  Not even the parking ticket people are out on patrol.  Even they have given up.

We enter the building, veer left and catch the elevator.  Once at the top, we enter the open greeting area. 

A gentleman greets us and summons us back to his crowded office.  Papers and files are all over his desk.   I repeat our story.  He listens.  I wait.  He offers something.   I stop listening half way in his diatribe.  I repeat my story with emphasis.

Then he says, “Did you do over the ACT?”  She answers in the affirmative.  I inject, “It should not matter.  Thirty is an excellent score. You cannot tell me you see students with 3.76 GPAs, As in all advanced placement classes, and an ACT score of 30 everyday!”

He ignores and searches for the file.

I continued. “If the University of __  really wants diversity, as they say they do, then let us encourage diversity.  Here you have a young woman whom you will not have to worry about.  She will be academically successful.  She brings the ethnic diversity that is so necessary for our students’ development.  She has a GPA of 3.76 with an ACT score of 30.  You are telling me she is not tops on your list of Get This Child Here?”

He ruffles through stacks of papers, eventually locating her file.  He fuddles with a calculator on his desk entering her most recent ACT score and comes up with a final number.  He turns the calculator to me (as if that mattered) and says, “I think we can get her in.”  He tells me that her new score of 31 (one whole point greater) shifted the algorithm just enough to get her in the door.

Now, that is nonsense! 

If you want talent…if you want diversity…if you perceive a benefit to having a diverse campus, then go after diversity.   Do not conflate disadvantaged with diversity.  They are not the same and should not be used as if they were.  You want thoughts and perspectives from different ethnic and social cultures.

I am not saying not to support our students who have been traditionally underrepresented.   Don’t get me wrong.  Academics is still the one secure path to social mobility.  If we are successful in attracting and retaining more first generation students in here, much of our current social challenges will shift to the left.   They will never fully go away, but they will not have the same weight or negative impact. 

I am talking about diversity of thinking, diversity of cultures, diversity of perspective…all while having confidence in that student’s ability to navigate the challenging academic environment of the university.

 You cannot get more diversity than an Iranian child with an ACT of 31 and a GPA of 3.76 on a 4 point scale. 

All because she checked the White box.

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Breaking the Egg


I lived first in a little house, I lived there very well

The world to me was small and round, and made of pale blue shell.

egg2Nestled 80 miles Northeast of Madison, the capital, and 82 miles Northwest of Milwaukee, the largest and most diverse city, lies the sleepy lumber town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

 The City of Oshkosh first came to prominence after the great fire of Chicago.  Oshkosh was one of the primary sources for lumber used to rebuild that city, and grew to become the third most populace city in Wisconsin.  In 1972, one of the children’s overalls made by a, then obscure, clothing company called Oshkosh B’Gosh gained notoriety when it was advertised in one of the more prominent magazines of the day.  Oshkosh Trucking was one of the largest and most beloved employers within the Fox Valley, and paper was king. 

 That was then.  This is now.

 Much of Oshkosh’s manufacturing base has disappeared exposing a large un-transferable labor force.  In an effort to rebuild a sagging economy, the Oshkosh Correctional Institute which was built in 1986 expanded its rated bed capacity in 1996 to receive 1,800 inmates.  This, plus Oshkosh’s history as a “low crime” community had resulted in a dramatic shift in its demographic make-up.  Within the span of one decade (10 years), Oshkosh’s African American (AA) census population ballooned to a near four-fold increase over its original numbers….almost exclusively lower socioeconomic.    

Although a large percentage of this immigrant population came from Chicago, Milwaukee, Racine, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Ohio also accounted for sizeable portions. 

 One of the largest challenges came in the education of this new group.  This population had neither a long history in Oshkosh, nor did they come from similar inter nor intra-geographic environments. The challenge was one of understanding this new population, bringing them together, all while trying to educate them.

 I recently held a conversation with eight (8) African American middle school students.  Each of these students was attending the same school.  Many had classes together.  Not one of these students was born in Oshkosh (0/8).  Only three of the eight (3/8) were born in Wisconsin.  And only two (2), a brother & sister pair attended primary school in the District.

 How do you acculturate a group of students into “how things are done here,” when the only secure cross-cultural connection they have is race/color.  They do not even know each other sitting in the car, yet our expectations are that they move forward toward a shared goal/purpose. 

Just think of it – we have dramatically increased the belly of our population through immigration (increased jail population), loss of jobs (closure and exit of manufacturing), and lack of transferability of employment (trained to do one thing, and have done it for years). 

When you sit within a culture that has lost jobs, has a population retention rate of 79% (79% of the population remain or return), a 29% bachelor degree or above rate (71% high school and below), and has a proud steeled cultural and social history, you must expect these changes to breed and harvest strong grief reactions!! 

 Not dealing with it does not make it go away.  But (a) know that is one aspect of grief, as is anger, and (b) change may need to be mandated.  It is not going to happen organically. And it is not going to happen without financial challenge. 

 We can sing the song of social change how much we want.  The words are nice.  You feel like hugging and offering the sign of peace afterward.  It will not change without a shift of market forces.  You either reward me financially for making the changes, or charge me financially for not making the changes. 

 I will not be happy.  I will not make them willingly.  I will be very resentful.  I will try to make perfunctory shifts, like moving the furniture.  But, with insistence, I will make the changes…if only because I want to retain my job.

 Then comes the, already readied and primed, social movement.  When changes are being forged, you must have a readied and primed social movement to support and enact that change.  Those are the people who do the work and place the moral cover over the mandate.  Eventually, we get to a new sense of “normal.”    

 This is not as simple as I’ve made it seem from this brief statement.  (See the challenges of our new Black president or a new Black principal) These are countervailing forces; change versus defense of change. 

 This challenge is nowhere near brief.  It is, has been, and will be with us forever. 

 As human beings, we identify, generate, re-identify and re-generate ourselves through difference.  We group.  And as we group through culturally similar identifiers (age, ethnicity, language, schools we attend, music we like), those identifiers themselves become the seed of separation. 

Even a kid with 12 earrings hanging onto or out of each orifice, identifies with another kid similarly adorned, all while arguing against society’s lack of individualism. 

Don’t expect it to be different because this is 2009.  That is simply another day, another year, another date. In many ways we are still basic and base animals in beautiful clothes and nice smelling cologne.

 If we are, however, to steel/steal the best of us, we have to figure this one out.  We are losing some great talent.

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Engaging is the beginning...Diversity is not a dirty word.  Nor is multiculturalism.  It is simple.  The world has changed before our eyes and we need to change, too.

I am Dr. Al Felice.  I am a Doctor of Psychology with a specialization in ethnic and social minority cultures.

Multiculturism is an invitation to embrace diversity.  Diversity of thought, shape, color, culture, attributes, character, race, gender, and abilities.  At best, multiculturism is a dream for the beloved community- an inclusive community where everyone can have a meaningful role.  It may be a Utopian dream, but if we do not dream it, and practice it in small steps, we will fail as a species.

This blog is my exploration of that dream and its mandate.  I invite you to challenge me, offer ideas, express your frustration and share your delights. 

In my homeland of Trinidad, West Indies, we have a saying:  All of we is one.  Despite the pain we cause each other, I hold this to be true.

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