RICHMOND, Va. — African American students and alumni of colleges in the Richmond region, have taken the opportunity to open up about their experiences on varying campuses and express their need for improvement.
Historically black colleges and universities were the only choice for black students because of obvious discrimination. In recent times, black students have expanded their options of higher education.
While some students have been ready to broaden their viewpoints by attending schools outside the principles of black culture, they have noted these schools are not socially ready for them.
One particular student describes the years at a private white institution as a rough experience. Hope Ward, a senior at Randolph-Macon College, has expressed concern about the treatment of African Americans there. She believes the administration does not understand the lives of people of color and appear to not really want to. As a result, many black students leave the school.
“The transfer rate of people of color is ridiculous; astronomical, yet it’s never discussed or dealt with,” Ward said.
Myisha Trice, an alumnus of R-MC remembers school events being narrow-minded and lacking consideration of other cultures.
“We decided to make our own fun through the initiation of Black Cultural Society, the Multi-cultural Association, and Brothers 4 Change,” Trice said.
In addition to Ward’s endeavors, other students were driven to step up and support the efforts of improvement. John Hollemon, a recent graduate of Randolph-Macon, found a way for black students to have a better student life by bringing the first black fraternity on campus. Iota Phi Theta Inc. was introduced when Greek life was limited to black students at R-MC with just one black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc.
Unlike other fraternities on campus, the Iotas did not receive funding for chartering and had to recruit members on their own. Hollemon had to present to the Greek Advisory Board who was initially against the idea of launching the group. Considering the board was composed of white men over age sixty, he recalls a strong bias. It was expected for black students to join one of the eight white fraternities, or four white sororities already there.
Hollemon, a current Community Director at Louisburg College, says student life personnel should realize who supports them and be more supportive of the black community on R-MC’s campus.
The Office of Student Life at Randolph-Macon was given an opportunity to speak on these concerns about student diversity and inclusion issues, but there was no response.
Monique Sample, former Coordinator of Student Life at Randolph-Macon College, gives her insight on the challenges and consequences of having to juggle the many responsibilities of introducing and maintaining a diverse campus that caters to all.
HBCU campuses have always had open arms for their students, but those in this area are now falling short to the academic performance of their predominately white counterparts, and students are taking notice.
After graduating from R-MC, Trice was employed at Virginia Union University as the Intramural Coordinator. She mentions that Virginia Union includes the rich traditions and pride of black culture that Randolph-Macon never had. But she also questions their level of academic rigor. While she admires the culture of VUU, she would prefer R-MC for its academics.
Hollemon stated that his concern of the focus some HBCU’s placed on social life, deterred him from attending one. Reflecting her employment at VUU, Trice concludes that the focus should be more on academics instead of the social life.
“Virginia Union being in the state that it was in with almost losing its accreditation, I felt like they could have funneled their resources towards other things,” said Trice.
In July of 2012, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges sanctioned VUU publicly because of their lack of financial compliance for financial aid requirements and external funding of research programs.
Virginia State University is another HBCU in the area that is currently facing backlash for their financial state. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, a decrease in enrollment and cuts from state appropriations resulted in a lack of funding. The detriment has influenced current students to rally and want better leadership from administration.
Shakeera Harden graduated from Virginia State this past spring and says she has noticed the effect their financial issues has had on a lack of resources.
“The issue is the misuse of funds,” said Harden. “There is not an even distribution of money throughout the school, and the money that does come in isn’t tracked closely enough so that none fall through the cracks.”
Harden adds that a student who does not have much direction can easily become distracted there. She believes the emphasis on campus life, and the faculty who has low expectations of students can promote a lower success rate.
Dr. Mirta Martin, who is currently the ninth president of Fort Hays State University, was the former dean and professor of management at Reginald F. Lewis School of Business of Virginia State University. She also held an executive position at John Tyler Community College in nearby Chester, Virginia and credits her experiences to relentless dedication.
Martin says there was a perception at Virginia State that students were there because they had no other option. She remembers having to dispel this perception and encourage her students to realize their own potential in the corporate world.
“You have to have the right faculty that are willing to work with the students and set the bar high,” Martin said. “They have to have expectations that their students will achieve excellence.”
Some black students in the greater Richmond area have looked to other options in education that take a different direction. Tyrelle Watkins attended J. Sargeant Reynolds, a community college in Richmond, and says community college has helped him improve concentration on academics but also in life. He has been able to prepare for higher education at a university if he chooses to go that route.
“This allows the student to gain more knowledge before going to a rigorous program that their high school academic level may not have prepared them for,” Watkins said.
Martin notes that many students are coming to community colleges as an alternative because of financial reasons, needing to mature, or for family matters. But after two years, Martin says the students most likely choose to continue education and attend senior colleges through the transfer program.
“Just because they (students) are going to affordable and accessible colleges doesn’t mean that they are sacrificing rigor or quality,” said Martin. “It’s quite the opposite.”
Virginia Commonwealth University is an institution in the city that has been known for their diversity mission. According to Mayah Brown, a junior at VCU, the school has an attitude of promoting unity between all students there.
Brown came to VCU her sophomore year after transferring from Radford University, a predominantly white institute. She says her experiences at Radford suffered from isolation and implications of discrimination. Since she came to VCU, Brown says she has a more comfortable experience because there is a mixed background.
“People should learn from this school because everyone can bring something to the table,” said Brown. “You have people here that come from different parts of the world who influence you with different ideas. It opens up your mind.”
Martin attests that universities could strive for a principle of taking the mission and pairing it with the anticipated output to reach success. She believes the fallacy with these schools comes from trying to be so “cookie cutter” and it would help to get back to the basics of figuring out the school’s purpose.
“Look at the individual mission of these colleges and universities,” said Martin. “These schools are no longer restricted and they need to recognize they are preparing their students in a world of multicultural thinking because that’s what the 21st Century is.”