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Archive for the ‘Diversity- In Reality’ Category

The coyote knew full well that despite his best efforts and the strongest ACME (sp) product available to him, there was no way he would ever catch the fleeting road-runner.  An anvil would crush him, he would fall into a deep chasm, or if all failed – they would go to commercial.  He knew it.  His wife knew it.  His children knew it. His neighborhood knew it. Every television show, book and movie reinforced it.  So he quit and drove a cab.  

In a recent self-identity study on 342 Afro and Indo-Caribbean students ages 8 – 11, respondents were invited to choose one of 5 male models (1 Asian, 1 East Indian, 1 White, and 2 Black) for the role of Medical Doctor, Security Agent, Police Investigator, Drug Pusher, or Janitor for an upcoming movie. 
Results indicated that
118 (35%) of students investigated chose the Indian model for the role of Medical Doctor in the movie, while 65 (19%) chose one of the two Black models for the same role.  Conversely, 63 (18%) of the students chose the Indian for the role of Drug Pusher while one of the two Black models was chosen to perform the role of the Drug Pusher by 168 (49%) of the respondents. 

In short: The East Indian students chose the East Indian for the role of the Medical Doctor.  The Black students chose the East Indian for the role of the Medical Doctor.  It was more likely for a Black student to choose a Black for the role of the Drug Pusher than it was for him/her to choose a Black for the role of the Medical Doctor.

Results suggest that regardless of the race of the respondents, East Indians were more likely to be perceived in the role of Medical Doctor – Blacks were more likely to be perceived in the role of the Drug Pusher. 

Of the 342 students tested, only 88 (26%) were of East Indian descent, while 254 or 74% were of Afro-Caribbean descent.

This study has very strong implications for the relationship between a child’s…a culture’s early identity development and academic success. It suggests that if evidence of success is not demonstrated within a child’s early environment (home, story books, neighborhood, movies, television shows, school, pictures, et cetera), the stories of “You can be whatever you want to be” are only rhetoric that we adults enjoy spewing for emotional and political release. 

…from a child the little coyote knew in his heart that there was no way he would ever catch the road runner…so he rejected that possibility – to himself.  Sad but True.   

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Dissertation Abstract

  

COPING STRATEGIES OF SUCCESSFUL AFRICAN-AMERICAN MALE SOPHOMORES AT A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE MIDWESTERN UNIVERSITY

 

Algernon Arthur David Felice

            Despite years of tremendous effort the African American (AA) population continues to be heavily represented with the lowest strata in society vis-à-vis economic advancement, social advancement, home and business ownership, average salary, et cetera (Census, 2000).  Many risk factors have been identified as potential contributors to the lack of social progress within this population.  These include low socioeconomic status, low paid employment, and lack of success in academic environments (Cross, 1998; Digest of Education Statistics, 2000).   Lack of success in higher education academic environments has been associated with financial insolvency, single-parenthood, low socioeconomic strata, first-generation college-bound status, and low ACT/SAT scores (Abicht, 1976; Adair, 2001).

Studies have shown that despite the presence of a number of risk factors, some AA students are successful.  Conversely, despite the presence of a number of supportive factors, middle income status, dual parent family, high ACT/SAT scores, a number of students have been shown to be unsuccessful (American Council on Education, 1986, 2000).  The current study examined a group of successful male AA sophomores at a predominantly White institution (PWI) to determine their individual and collective strategies for success within that institution.  It was felt that understanding what makes successful students successful will support both retention and recruitment efforts.

            La Fromboise, Coleman, & Gerton (1993) had posited seven bicultural competencies that they suggest support the success of AA students within PWI.  Coleman & McCubbin (1995) suggested that these bicultural competencies may be the factors that mediate between risk and success in these students.  Students who evidence these factors, therefore, should demonstrate greater levels of academic success that those who do not.  Tinto (1982, 1988, 1998) has argued that students who demonstrate successful transition from the high school to the higher education environment, have learned to release the mores of their home-familial environment and adopted those of their college-familial environment.

The Study:

Ten successful AA male sophomores were interviewed independently to ascertain what factors each employed to be successful in their current environment.  Results suggested that successful male AA students maintain very close home-familial relationships, do not invest much emotional energy in the university other than to get academic needs met, create and participate in social and culturally-centered environments, reframe negative experiences as part of the cost of success, view themselves as role models and representatives for those less-fortunate…those who did not have the opportunity, hold strong future-orientation, and maintain strong focus on “getting out with that paper.”  The bicultural competence model was not supported in this study. 

 

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A buddy of mine from grad school recently sent a note to me and invited my thoughts.  I am going to first reprint it without any interjections then do a second reprint, this time with my comments in-between his writing.  His piece follows.

I had a two-on-one meeting after school this past week with African-American parents of a senior of mine who wanted guidance on helping their daughter – a senior – choose the right college.  The dad graduated from a large public university, I don’t believe the mother graduated from college.  I didn’t tell them this for obvious reasons, but I am biased against large public universities for undergraduate studies for just about any student.  The parents are dead set on sending their daughter to a large public university (a different university than the one her father graduated from).  In many ways, I am very anti-large public college.  Other than resources, most large universities offer very little when compared with the small private colleges, and usually their culture is not conducive to success for students and families unfamiliar with “the game.”   Having graduated from a large public university myself – and being very satisfied with my own personal experience – does not change my opinion.  Sending a first generation college student – or any student without a solid family support – to a large university and you’re stacking the odds against the child that they’ll ever graduate.  We – high school counselors – spend so much time helping kids get into college, we don’t prepare them so that they succeed in college and graduate.  And I’m not talking about preparing kids academically.  It’s the social adjustment of being placed into a “melting pot” at a large university where if you’re not white (if it’s the traditional large university) and come from a family with financial security, then you’re going to struggle to fit in.  The situation is a little different, I would guess, if a student is not first generation college student or if a student comes from a strong, nuclear family.  Otherwise, and this is a huge category of kids, then send your kids to a smaller, private college where individuals can have a greater impact on the culture of the institution, and you’re not as much at the mercy of “the machine.”  Besides, the education at smaller colleges is better in many cases.  I know that this isn’t fact, but my biased opinion.  And it’s an opinion that I don’t share with my colleagues or my students/families, although I do offer up a more tempered viewpoint when the appropriate moment comes along.  I never steer a kid away from a big university if that’s where their heart is.  But many times it’s like a person buying their first house when they’ve done all the research and looked at pictures of the house, but they’ve never taken a walk-through in the house, and – most important – they don’t have family who can guide them to know what to look for and what questions to ask.

So now you’ve read this and, hopefully, understand what he is saying, I am going to re-engage with aspects of the piece interjecting my comments.  I will italicize mine so that the call and response will be clear to the reader.

I had a two-on-one meeting after school this past week with African-American parents of a senior of mine who wanted guidance on helping their daughter – a senior – choose the right college.  The dad graduated from a large public university, I don’t believe the mother graduated from college.

Two things right away; (a) That you’re are having the conversation and the type of conversation you were having suggests that this child is way ahead of the curve. I have worked in the environment too long.  This is not a regular occurrence. This parent is ahead of the game. (b) That the dad is a graduate…that dad graduated, makes this child second-generation.  This means that, at least, one of her parents knows ACT, FAFSA, proper sequencing of classes, how to get in the school and defend his daughter, a sense of good teachers versus bad teachers… This child is way ahead of the curve.

I didn’t tell them this for obvious reasons, but I am biased against large public universities for undergraduate studies for just about any student.  The parents are dead set on sending their daughter to a large public university (a different university than the one her father graduated from).  In many ways, I am very anti-large public college.  Other than resources, most large universities offer very little when compared with the small private colleges, and usually their culture is not conducive to success for students and families unfamiliar with “the game.”   Having graduated from a large public university myself – and being very satisfied with my own personal experience – does not change my opinion.  Sending a first generation college student – or any student without a solid family support – to a large university and you’re stacking the odds against the child that they’ll ever graduate. 

Large universities are good for what large universities are good for.  There is a list of the universities that have placed the most people in the high tiers of the corporate and political world…the world that runs things. The list opens with the Harvards, the Yales, and then moves in to the Northwesterns, the Michigans, the Purdues and some of the other large public universities. So if you can’t get your child into the Harvards or the Yales, there is tremendous prestige and promise in getting him/her into the Mighigans and the Ohio States. It is like loading the lottery.  If you graduate from one of these high-profile universities, (a) there is a perception of the type and quality of education you’ve attained (true or not) and (b) there is a higher likelihood of your getting to the front of the hiring line.  There are some great private schools in Northern Minnesota.  There is one that I know of in Iowa. There are a few in Boston, and another in upstate New York.  There are the William & Marys of the world and the Carletons.  The truth is that only the parents who know and/or socialize with other parents who know, will know.  Our first-generation parents (both foreign and domestic) do not know that these places exist.  Note that I have not even spoken about the historically black college and university (HBCU) and the utility of that experience to the academic maturity of the black student.  That, and the fact that the HBCU does not (regardless of capability) market effectively to anywhere beyond their geography and knowledge base, is a whole other discussion.  Let me not stray too far afield.

A recent estimate suggested that the salary of the person charged with management of Harvard’s endowment was larger than the endowments of the 10 largest HBCUs combined. Let’s be real!  Which schools get marketed?  Which schools have the financial support and the alumni network to challenge, financially, for the best teachers, the best researchers, the best facilities?  Which schools can afford to send recruiters?  Which schools do you see running out of the tunnels on football Saturday morning?  Which schools have the best basketball recruitment programs?  Which schools do the scouts follow?    Which schools sound better when I tell my friends that my son/daughter is going to “blah-de-blah” university?  Parents don’t know what they don’t know and, sadly, the vast majority of counselors that I have witnessed working with these families seem locked in to the large university syndrome. They, themselves, participate in it.  It is part of the larger culture. It is what I see on tv.

We – high school counselors – spend so much time helping kids get into college, we don’t prepare them so that they succeed in college and graduate. 

We (counselors) do not see this as our responsibility.  The student-university match is the prime algorithm for success or failure. We (counselors) get neither credit nor blame for a student’s success or failure at the college level.  Academic preparedness or lack thereof does not fall at the feet of the counselor, and social-emotional preparedness is rarely part of the discourse.  Not that we don’t look at it, but we are trying to get this kid prepared for college or into college, and, if parents are involved, taking the lead of the parents…not from the parents.

At the college level we talk about the need for remedial Math and English, and the low success rates of our Black and Latino students despite these opportunities.  We see the remedial courses as an opportunity.  We quarrel about how ill-prepared these students are, and what are they teaching these kids nowadays.  We see the disproportional failure rates, despite the opportunity, as an indictment of parents, the K-12 system, the culture, anything other than what we do.  From our perspective, we are doing the best we can and these children are not coming to college prepared.  Why?  We look to the left.  We do not look to the right.  And we definitely do not look in the mirror.

Now, once you release the student to us, and we accept him or her, you (naturally) move on to your next group of chickens.  You’ve sent these on to fly.  You don’t look back to see which ones went “bump in the night! 

 And I’m not talking about preparing kids academically.  It’s the social adjustment of being placed into a “melting pot” at a large university where if you’re not white (if it’s the traditional large university) and come from a family with financial security, then you’re going to struggle to fit in. 

Kill the “melting pot” idea.  Nice concept.  Not real. 

Here is a joke for you.  “Fitting in” is not what my successful students do.  I have found that students who try to “fit in” tend to “fall out.”  This is particularly true for my first-generation students.  Second generation students whose parents have learned and taught how to negotiate and navigate tend to fare much better.  First generation students tend to struggle when they attempt to fit-into or with the environment.  In fact, my studies show that first-generation students do much better when they form an enclave…a space that allows and promotes social and emotional centeredness.  For some this was a religious brotherhood. For others this was a social retreat.  What the students that I studied told me was that they figured out where and from whom to get their needs met, engaged in satisfying those needs, and retreated to their space of comfort.  Notice how you don’t see very many Black kids at the football games, or the basketball games.  They will stay at home and watch it on television.  They will not go to the games.  Part of that is comfort.  Part of that is identification with self.  Right now being seen up in the stands is not a great identification with self.  But that too is another conversation for another day.

I am going to run a brief study on these kids who attend these Saturday morning games and tell you the results.  Stay tuned.

The situation is a little different, I would guess, if a student is not first generation college student or if a student comes from a strong, nuclear family. 

It’s a bit more nuanced that that, but that’s cool.  First-generation and nuclear bring different issues to the table (immigrant status, history of move from extended family toward nuclear unit status, etc.).  And that this child came from a strong nuclear unit does offer great strengths! 

Then send your kids to a smaller, private college where individuals can have a greater impact on the culture of the institution, and you’re not as much at the mercy of “the machine.”  Besides, the education at smaller colleges is better in many cases.  I know that this isn’t fact, but my biased opinion.  And it’s an opinion that I don’t share with my colleagues or my students/families, although I do offer up a more tempered viewpoint when the appropriate moment comes along.  I never steer a kid away from a big university if that’s where their heart is.  But many times it’s like a person buying their first house when they’ve done all the research and looked at pictures of the house, but they’ve never taken a walk-through in the house, and – most important – they don’t have family who can guide them to know what to look for and what questions to ask.

They might be in the wrong neighborhood.  That’s why you stay quiet.  They want to move into the middle-class neighborhood, and who does not.  How would it look if you were to be seen as guiding your students away from the middle-class neighborhood?  Not too good – huh?  What if there were other middle-class neighborhoods?  Even better, what if it would make more sense to purchase a first house?  You know those houses that are your first-homes?  You build equity while saving for your second home?  But if these kids, particularly first-generation kids, are never educated about the options, then their parents will never know.  You cannot educate a first-generation parent about this.  This parent depends on you.  You educate the child.  And you don’t educate the child as a senior.  That’s kind of late, don’t you think?

Thank you so much for your wonderful and thought-provoking comments. Keep writing.

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I was recently re-reading a piece by Williams & Leonard (1988) on graduating Black undergraduates.  It is interesting that we, 21 years on,  are still struggling mightily with this issue – whereas some schools like Stanford (84%) and Northwestern (75%) seem to have it all figured out.  I’ve chosen those two schools because (a) Northwestern has a comparable percentage, and (b) Stanford has much higher numbers of African American students that we.  Harvard’s success rate is in the mid-nineties, but they have such smaller numbers of African American students than we do.  

The authors note that “The problem of retention of Blacks seems no longer to be solely a question of retention but, rather, of academic progress toward graduation in their major fields of study.” A review of the most recent data within our System gives signature to this challenge.  African American and Latino students are more likely to require remediation in requisite math and courses, and are more likely to be unsuccessful at these remediation efforts (see UW-Oshkosh Equity Scorecard data).  On face value the fact that I am citing a twenty-one year old paper and we seem to be stuck in neutral should give us pause.  However, know that Williams & Leonard probably did not use our schools as their data profile.  Our schools may not, at that time, have moved to the state of acknowledging this as a challenge.  Our recognition may be more recent.  Our need to recognize may be more recent.  In fact, there are many school districts in Wisconsin where there are no African American students.  For the vast majority of my academic career, I was the only student of color in my classes.  That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

However, that we are now fully aware and have been for some time, offers three points of review.

  1. It is as we would like it to be.  We argue, we feign concern, and we do the dance only insomuch as the cameras are on.  There is a benefit, to us, in both the dance and the retention of status.
  2. If the challenge is truly the gateway courses, as has been suggested for a subset of our population, then a critical review of the need for those “gateway” courses might be in order.  If they lend nothing substantial to the degree, other than being a gate, then move the gate.  Put a bridge.
  3. With a remediation course, you are trying to move a student from point -5 to a point +2, using the former as a point of knowing very little or nothing, and the latter as a point of minimal academic readiness.   If we are unsuccessful at moving sufficient numbers of African American and Latino students from point “a” to point “b” (despite non-academic struggles) it suggests that those students have had poor readiness within the K-12 environment. 

As a point of discussion, I will reject #1, despite its very realness.  Number 1 is very, very real but if we find ourselves in a discussion about #1, we enter into an emotionally laden vortex with very few data points as landmarks to base our argument on.  Additionally, we want, at all costs, to avoid arguing.  We want to encourage discussion on and of the data.  It is hard to pull data on #1, so let’s put that aside for now.  However, if another twenty years passes and we are still sitting right here discussing the same issues, checkout #1.  Number 1 will be your default position.  Know also, that under any discussion around student recruitment, retention, and success lies an analysis of costs and benefits…the costs of doing something/nothing/very little, versus the benefits that may accrue to us for doing nothing/something/very little.  I am not denying the moral imperative here.  I am simply stating the fact that we have a university to run, a board to appease, and big donors to keep “happy.”  So as we present on preparing our students for tomorrow and the diverse world they will have to learn to navigate, never lose sight of the dollars and making some sense of it.

Moving on. 

#2:  Is there data to suggest that students who succeed at these gateway courses are statistically more likely to continue on to graduation?  In essence, is there something about the structure of these courses that offers us insight into the students’ ability to matriculate successfully?  Is there a high enough positive correlation between passing these courses and matriculation that we should hold status for everybody, despite field of study?  If the answer is an unequivocal “yes”, then let’s hold.  If the answer is “maybe”, let’s review.  Let’s see if there is another gate that’s possible.

#3:  This is about us putting pressure on, not just complaining about or just having meetings with, our K-12 feeders.  If we are their outlets of prestige, then we must take more control in product development.  There are three ways to take control of product development.  The first would be our participating in the schools (see PEOPLE program; see Posse program; see Information Technology Academy).  These programs need to be cleaned-up but that is the general idea.  The second is to start a charter school.  We compete directly with the school district.  Let them complain if they want.  We make our own feeder school.  After much complaining and chagrin, I promise they will magically begin to produce better products.  Works every time.  Even just the threat works.   The third is to search for schools, within and without our district which focuses on an area of technology or business that we want to promote ourselves in.  For example, if Whitewater focuses on business, and Stout focuses on fabric and design, then we locate schools that teach with those as central themes.  There may be a school in Florida, or North Carolina.  We make those schools our little sisters. 

Moving on #3 does a lot for us.  It actually affects #2 also.  It saves us investment while putting pressure on our current providers.  It markets us to a wider audience and moves us as the school-of-choice for business or technology or whatever we choose to focus on.  This way, we can choose diversity as a starting point, or develop diversity as the relationship develops.  We also move our graduation rates without all the drama we’re dealing with right now.

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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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