June 2, 2006
Vol. 36, Issue 10
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Peer Support

 

Peer Support
Cited in black students’ success
Top Photo: Dan Addison
Bottom Photo: Rebecca D’Angelo for the New York Times

In her four years at the University of Virginia, Jessica Fowler, 22, who
is graduating on Sunday, has had much success, including winning admission to Duke University Medical School. But one of her most enduring accomplishments may have come this year, when she was a mentor to Courtney White, 19, as part of the university’s peer adviser program for incoming black students.

“Jessica’s always been there when I needed her, whether it was a math
problem or something bigger,” Ms. White said in an interview in a building on the Lawn, an original part of the university that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. “She would call me and make sure everything was fine. She took a group of us out to dinner. She’s there for us.”

The University of Virginia has long led the nation’s public universities in its graduation rate for blacks, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which tracks graduation rates of African-Americans at the nation’s major public and private higher education institutions. The main reason, university officials and students like Ms. White say, is the structured and intensive mentoring program.

This year, the journal reported that the university graduated 86 percent of its black students over a six-year period, the length by which the rate is measured. Although many Ivy League institutions have higher rates — especially Harvard, which led with 95 percent — the record slips with state-chartered universities, where three-fourths of blacks who attend college enroll.

For example, the University of California system and the University of New Hampshire each had a 70 percent graduation rate for blacks, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had 69 percent, and the University of Michigan, 67 percent. At many top state universities, only 60 percent or less of blacks who enroll end up graduating.

Nationwide, the graduation rate for blacks at public and private universities is 42 percent, compared with 62 percent for whites.

Bruce Slater, managing editor of the journal, said the University of Virginia’s success in graduating blacks was a result of the financial assistance the institution gives its lowest-income students. In 2004, the university began giving grants instead of loans for certain lowincome students and increasing grants for middle-income students.

“The fact that they don’t have to worry about money definitely contributes to the higher graduation rate,” Mr. Slater said, referring to black students.

The university’s record is particularly noteworthy because its first black undergraduates did not enroll until 1955. A court order five years earlier had opened the institution’s doors to black graduate and medical students. In 1976, when race relations on campus were strained, the university set up its Office of African-American Affairs. The mentoring program began in 1984.

The extra attention starts with admissions, said Sylvia V. Terry associate dean of African-American affairs. Ms. Terry matches each student who has been accepted, by interests and background, with an upper-class student. She selects about 60 black students to be trained as peer advisers, each responsible for about six incoming students, and arranges for each incoming student to correspond with a peer adviser the summer before the first year.

Throughout the first year, the program sponsors on-campus activities like meals, weekly study sessions and celebrations of milestones like completing the first semester. It includes personal touches like birthday cards and hand-written notes of congratulations for good grades. These help knit the black students together as a group, Ms. Terry and the students said.

After the first year, students can choose to be mentored by a faculty member in a program that the university started in 1995.

Ms. White and other students said the freshman program provided a comfort zone of support and resources in a largely white environment in which racial tensions still exist. Although the 1,200 black students at the university make up slightly less than 10 percent of the student population, Ms. White, who is studying nursing, described the campus as having a“ strong and relatively large core of black students.”

Ms. Fowler, who lived in an apartment on the Lawn during her senior year, said that when she thought back on her first year at the university, “the personalized attention” of the peer adviser program“ made all the difference.”

“It made me feel that I had a home away from home,” she added.

This article was reprinted with permission from the New York Times, which first published the story on May 17, 2006.


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