Since the arrival of the first African enslaved people in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the institutions of the United States have historically been systematically and structurally embedded with inequalities and injustices; particularly as it relates to Black people.
One of the most pertinent American institutions to evidence this is the educational system. During the founding of the United States, through slavery and beyond encompassing the Jim Crow years and De Jure segregation, Black people have historically been denied the right to equal access to formal education. Even after legislative success in overturning laws prohibiting de jure segregation in education, de facto segregation persists in contemporary times. This has affected the funding, maintenance, and quality of primary and secondary education of Black people. This of course leads to disparate attendance and graduation rates from colleges and universities between Whites, Blacks, and other minority groups.
Women generally, despite the persistent inequalities faced in pay and employment and employment opportunities, graduate at higher rates than men across all demographics. This is not the case as it relates to race. The U.S Department of Education sheds some light on the racial disparity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), during the academic year of 2015-16, 36% of Black men, and 64% of Black women graduated with a bachelor’s degree. In comparison, 44% of White men and 56% of White women earned degrees during the same academic year (nces.ed.gov, 2019).
Given the correlation between educational attainment and the unemployment rate (and its effect on a person’s related socio-economic status), it is worthy to examine the variables that promote and hinder Black college graduation rates. Understanding, and improving the educational attainment of Black people will likely have the effect of raising their standards of living, promote greater wealth that can be passed down to future generations, and will go aways in eliminating inequalities and therefore help to reduce social injustice. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for a person holding a bachelor’s degree is 5.5% with Median usual weekly earnings of $1,305. Compared to a high school graduate, it is 9% and $781 respectively (U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
Prior scholarship has focused on the differences in educational attainment between Black people and White people, and plenty of literature has been written examining Black success (or failures) in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). The niche of my research is to examine successful Black college graduates of HBCU, PWIs, or Both. By limiting the study to this population, I believe a deeper understanding of the personal and institutional variables related to graduating can be obtained.
A reading of the material, as stated before, covers a wide range of variables and factors as it pertains to Black college students on campus experiences. Many of the articles enumerated those factors, but through it all three general themes seem to have emerged from the collective works: Upper Mobility and Racial Identity, the Perceptions of Racism in Institutions of Higher Learning, and the Necessity of Supportive Relationships. Going into the reading I had many assumptions based on my tacit “knowledge” of collegiate life. Many of those assumptions were challenge or at least posed as a question that I never thought needed to be posed because the answers were clearly obvious. Those will be discussed later.
Upper Mobility and Racial Identity.
A common theme repeated in a review of the literature involves the process of Black students, particularly those from urban and lower income areas, reconciling their attainment of post-secondary education and how that relates to their self-conceptualization of their racial identity. This is typical in many situations where the student may be a first-generation college student. Time and again there appears to be an added burden, or a sense of responsibility, that Black students feel they are bearing. This burden of course is not typically shared by their White counterparts, and it remains to be determined if these burdens are useful motivators are unnecessary hinderances.
The conflict as it relates to education and race comes about from the struggle to maintain racial authenticity while simultaneously avoiding the trappings of White Cultural assimilation that come with upward social mobility. A more colloquial description would be to say that many Black students don’t want to be viewed as “acting White” and they avoid this by “keeping it real” and not “forgetting where they come from. “This struggle and the coping mechanism employed by Black people can be better understood in “A Long Way from Home? Race, Community, Educational Opportunity, and Residential Choice” by Author Nina A. Johnson. In the article, she discusses the “out-migration” of Black people from urban and low income, and the strategies employed by them to reconcile their sense of responsibility to the Black community. Her research demonstrated three approaches to this struggle: The Role Model Approach, The Home comer Approach, and the Individualist Approach (Johnsom, 2014).
I have found also in a review the literature that this conflict is not just pervasive among the students but can also play out among Black Professors as well. Here the conflict is centered around maintaining high academic rigor and standards while also serving as a role model and resource to Black Students that may need assistance. As studied in “Intraracial Dynamics of Black Professors’ and Black Students’ Communication in Traditionally White Colleges and Universities, by authors Penelope J. Moore and Susan D. Toliver they note “One theme that emerged was that Black professors need to clarify course expectations for students in general and, particularly, to communicate to Black students that they will be held to the same standards as others
The perception of Racism in Institutions of Higher Learning.
This theme did not challenge any assumption I had but it did place it in a context that I do not often consider. When thinking of racism many people believe that it is an unfavorable opinion of people. When I answer this question, I define it as a system of advantage that benefits White people and disadvantages Minorities. Framing racism in this manner emphasizes the structural and the self-perpetuating nature of racism, calls attention to fallacy Color Blind Racism, and highlights the destructive nature of Micro-aggression. This was a point that emerged as an aspect in many PWIs. This was addressed direct by researchers at that University of California when they said that their article “…provides an examination of racial micro-aggressions and how they influence the collegiate environment.” (Daniel Solorzano, 200). This was a common theme found.
Several literatures discuss the effects of perceived hostile racial climates. This is typified in “Racial Identity, Racial Discrimination, Perceived Stress, and Psychological Distress among African American Young Adults.” By Authors Robert M. Sellers, Cleopatra H. Caldwell, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone and Marc A. Zimmerman. In the article the relationship between the centrality of a person’s racial identity and the perception of racial hostilities and its deleterious effect on the mental psyche of Black students is studied. This is relevant to my area of study of the part of my study involves Black students on predominantly White campuses and how that context may aid or detract from successful completion.
The Necessity of Supportive Relationships.
The final thematic challenge came from this item. In thinking about the reasons Black student are not as successful, my assumption was that the innate structural racism present at PWIs would be the primary reason for this discrepancy. However, a reading of the seem to indicate that an encouraging family dynamic (particularly a nuclear family), and a positive relationship with faculty and professors was correlated more to Black success than encountering discriminatory practices was at retarding success. (Bryan K. Hotchkins, 2015) While much of the scholarship didn’t discount institutional issues, it importance did not rank as high as I initially thought it would.
As I gained some understanding through reading, and reflected on this emergent knowledge, I found that there was little research on comparing Black students to Black students at HBCUs and PWIs. Much of the work focuses on Black/White differences and on who did and did not graduate. My project will examine different groups of Black that have graduated and their perceptions, whether positive or negative, of their experiences at HBCUs and PWIs. I believe this will add to the body of research regarding Black college graduates.
My project involves studying a unique subset of the college graduate population. Specifically, I am studying college graduates who identify as Black and has graduated from either a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), a Predominately White Institution (PWI), or both. Because of this, the most appropriate sampling strategy will primarily be Purposeful Sampling combined with Groups Characteristics sampling.
Ravitch and Carl states that “…purposeful sampling, provides context-rich and detailed accounts of specific populations and locations.” (Ravitch, Carl 2016, page 128) and Group Characteristics as being employed to “Select cases to create a specific information-rich group that can reveal and illuminate important group patterns.” (Ravitch, Carl, 2016, page 131).
This study isn’t suitable for quantitative analysis because there already exist a vast amount of data detailing the college attendance and graduation rates of Black people as it compares to other demographics. This in group, in-depth analysis will provide more substantive information about the personal and institutional variables that may have affected the experience they had in college. By focusing on those that have successfully completed their degree programs, we may come to understand something that is not apparent in studying those that didn’t.
Length of the Interviews.
I conducted four Unstructured interviews for this project. The first interview lasted one hour fifty-three minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The second interview lasted one hour thirty-one minutes and fourteens seconds. That interview was interrupted due to a personal matter of the respondent and has shortly continued for another seven minutes and fourteen seconds. The third interview lasted twenty-five minutes and forty-six seconds. The goal of the upcoming interview is to get within twenty-five to forty minutes.
The excessive lengths of the first two interviews were due to too many broad and general questions that didn’t really provide much useful information. Of note one of the respondents who identifies as biracial at times attended both an HBCU and a PWI. During the interview we only covered the experience at the HBCU. He has granted me a second interview so that we may discuss his experiences at the PWI.
The respondents include two men and one woman. One of the men identifies as biracial and cultural, ethnically, and socially as primarily Black. He stated he never considers himself as White. The remaining members identify solely as Black. Their average age is 42.33 years. All three are married and all three are registered nurses. It should be noted that I am personal friends with all three and have worked with all three for several years.
As the stated before, I am friends with the respondents and have great affection for all of them. A potential bias is that as a Black person myself, I will likely have some of the same feelings and common experiences as they have had, particularly when it comes to matters of race.
A further complication is the fact that as of, yet I have not earned a college degree. The subject matter therefore is one of great personal interest to me and so I was careful to guard myself against too much emotional investment in the telling of their accounts. Remaining as objective as possible so that I can get the needed information was a challenge.
As the primary instrument, I monitored how I processed the information to present an unbiased and objective recreation of their stories.
The interviews are recorded on a digital recorder and on an iPhone. Once recorded the audio of the interviews are stored in a file on my personal, password protected iPad and uploaded to a protected cloud-based storage service in Drop Box. The original digital and iPhone recordings are then deleted. The transcript will have the names of the respondents redacted and pseudonyms will be used. Written notes and observations will either be in my personal possession or in my home locked in a metal box.
The only people that will have access to this information will be instructors and faculty involved in the project. At the conclusion of the Senior Seminar, all information to include transcripts and notes will be destroyed.
Transcribing was accomplished primarily using the software Otter: Transcribe Voice Notes. After the initial process, I then went through and corrected the mistakes made by the software. After the correction phase, I went through an edited for clarity. Doing the initial two interviews, I can be heard verbally responding to them respondents mainly using the words “okay” and “alright”. I deleted those words because they added nothing to the interview. I also edited some of my own questions, and some of the respondents answers for clarity. In those instances, I strove to maintain the integrity and essence of what either I or the respondents were saying. For most of the interviews, I let the speech stand as it were spoken.
As noted earlier, the names of the respondents have been redacted for the purposes of confidentiality. The transcripts reside within the software on my password protected computers and the text of the transcripts are transferred into Word documents that are also on the same computer system.
My primary approach to coding was Inductive in nature. Rather than start with a hypothesis I looked to the data to see if there are common variables among the participants. This is done by going line by line and identifying interesting or noteworthy points of emphasis. From this I organized the variables into more general categories. From those categories, I drew conclusions based on what I interpreted from the data.
This process, though inductive, can also be described as Axial coding. Ravitch and Carl describes Axial Coding as “…a process of going from coding chunks of data to starting to see how these codes come together into coding categories or clusters from which you will situate sets of constructs or concepts in relation to each other to make arguments and develop findings.” (Ravitch, Carl, 2016). The interviews are unstructured to give the respondents an opportunity to provide as much detail and information as possible.
In the analyzing phase, I took the abstracted concepts and drew conclusions based on commonalities shred among the respondents. This formed basis of my knowledge the data presented to me.
The aim of this project is to carve out a niche area of study where the focus would be on Black college graduates of Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), or both. Rather than compare Black graduates to non-graduates or to White graduates, I believe there is utility in studying those who were successful in their college endeavors so that common variables could be ascertained and developed into policy.
I was able to secure four respondents for research. All the respondents are registered nurses and close associates to me. The respondents included one woman and three men, three identifying as Black and one as Bi-racial (mostly Black). The average age of the respondents is 34 years, and they have each given themselves pseudonyms that will be used moving forward. They are Captain Steve Rogers, Sanakatosh, Rufus Jenkins, and Michael. Even though there were four respondents, there are five interviews because Captain Rogers was interviewed a second time as a follow up due to time constraint After conducting five unstructured interviews with the respondents, four general factors emerged that I believe impacted the graduates time in college. Those factors are University Institutional Support, the Perceived Quality of Pre-College Education, Family Structure/Support, and Peer Support. It is acknowledged that all the factors listed are not assumed to be the exclusive purview of the Black American experience in the educational institution.
To properly frame the four general factors in the proper context, there should be some clarification of types of post-secondary institutions each of the respondents attended. As indicated earlier, the aim of this study is to tease out certain personal and institutional factors that impacted their college careers. It should also be noted that even though the interviews were constructed so that the respondent’s life stories were discussed chronologically, the findings in this report will be presented in an atemporal manner.
Captain Steve Rogers is a respondent that has two degrees and have spent the most time at both types of institutions (PWIs vs HBCUs). His first degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology(pre-med) that he earned at Morehouse University. Morehouse is a private, Historically Black institution. His second degree, a Batchelor’s of Science in Nursing, was earned at the University of Portland. The University of Portland is a private, Catholic, Predominantly White Institution. On the question of race, he identified as bi-racial, respecting the backgrounds of his White mother and Black father. After discussing the socially constructed nature of race, and how the category of race is an assigned status, he intimated that he is culturally and socially Black. This was further confirmed when he said
I can’t say I know how people see me. I know that if I must fill out a form that requires you to pick a race. Yes. If there’s a biracial box or another, I check it. If, if there’s not and I have to pick one, I picked black. Uh, I would never check the white box.
Sanakatosh also has two degrees. The first is an associate degree in Pre-nursing that was earned at Georgia Military College. Georgia Military College is military public college. She did not however attend as a cadet. She stated
After the two years at Georgia Military College. So, I did my core. And I was a civilian though. So, I went to a Military College as a civilian
When asked if the school was predominantly White of Predominantly Black, she described it as diverse. She then applied to and was accepted at Georgia Southern University, a public, predominantly White institution. She then went on to earn a Batchelor’s of Science in Nursing.
Rufus Jenkins is the respondent who spent his entire collegiate career at Florida A&M University. Florida A&M(FAMU) is a public Historically Black Institution. He earned a Batchelor’s of Science in Nursing.
Finally, Michael is the respondent who spent some time at both types of institutions covering three schools. He spent “about a year” at the University of New Orleans (UNO) which-is a public, Predominantly White school. He later attends Xavier University and earned a Batchelor’s of Science in Chemistry(pre-med). Xavier is a public, predominantly Black school. Later he attended FAMU where he earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing and was a schoolmate of Rufus.
University Institutional Support. When gauging the support derived from the universities of the respondents, I am considering both the tangible and intangible aspects of the schools. Because of that distinction, University Institutional Support is divided along two axis that I have designated as Structural and Interpersonal support.
Structural Support refers to the physical and tangible aspects of the institution such as campus infrastructure, materials, financial support. Interpersonal Support refers primarily to human interactions such as engagement and support of faculty and professors, or helpfulness of any ancillary players. It is worth noting each respondent view of support individually.
Captain Rogers, as indicated earlier, first attended Morehouse University, an HBCU. I wanted to understand from a material standpoint, considering apparent financial resources, campus presentation and maintenance what he thought about the physical nature of the school. When asked about the campus he replied
Morehouse campus was … there was always steam coming out of the ground there would be just random holes in the in the yard with just stuff happening …the cafeteria was raggedy the computer lab was a joke. The dorms were all outdated. I was wondering if there was like asbestos in the ceiling in the dorms
He was further frustrated by the fact that an $18,000 a year tuition didn’t seem justified by what he saw on campus. This was evidenced when he said
I think that their management of money is horrible. I think that they built a president’s mansion right before I got there. So, he lives in a mansion at the top of campus that was a mansion. A gigantic house. And then this computer lab was in the basement of a bookstore building and it was about this was 1997 98. My freshman year. There are probably about 30 computers in there. I say about 15 of them no exaggeration and viruses are broken and didn’t work. There probably about three computers in there that you can go write a paper on without having problem. and this is back in like floppy disk days. Yeah, yeah. printer be broken. It was hot. There was these fucked up AC things in the windows in our dorm rooms is stuck with the little AC units. This smell like weird to the cafeteria. Ours were stupid and there wasn’t a lot of options in there
In another example of inadequate support Captain Rogers also told of a difficult time he experienced there while trying to obtain financial aid and was denied because he “looked like he had money” he recalled on this incident
Normally the first month of school, I’m stressed, right? I’m I come back spring semester, senior year, I get denied. So, I go see that alumnus, President guy talks to him about it, because that’s what you do. And he says you got your little leather jacket on, with your backpack. You don’t look like you need no money. You got a shut off notice. And I was like, I was so shocked. I know what to say. I was like, What? And he was like, I mean, you look like you just want a couple dollars in your pocket, and you got money. You just want some extra money. And I was like I shit you not, I said I don’t know how I’m gonna get home on the MARTA today. Because I was counting on this money to pay for my, my, my train ticket. And he was like, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. And I’m not one to beg to get into somebody’s house when they told me they don’t want me there. So, I was like, okay. And I got up and I went outside, and I sat on the steps right there on whatever that street is right off Ashby. And I was like, What the fuck? Like, how am I gonna get home, I don’t have MARTA money. I don’t have money to get dinner.
The institutional mechanism for dispersing needed funds, whether through inadequate funding or mismanagement thereof, is an example of a lack of interpersonal support from the faculty of school. In the case of Morehouse there was a profound lack of Structural and Interpersonal support that increased the level of stress experienced by the student.
The lack of structural support was in direct opposition to what he experienced at the University of Portland Nursing program. When asked about that campus he stated
And this campus at University of Portland was I mean, everything was manicured, the grass was bright green. There was more than enough athletic, you know, facility where you could work out there was a nice cafeteria and a Cantina and this and that and there were multiple computer labs with Apples and Macs and yeah, it was it was night and day, just nice. Everything was well taken care of.
Morehouse and Portland were on opposite ends in terms of Structural support. However, this was not the case in terms of Interpersonal support. The main points of diversion fell along the lines of racial representation and engagement and the emotional investment of the professors. When asked about how his assigned race may have affected classroom interactions at Morehouse, Captain Rogers answered that it didn’t because the student body was almost exclusively Black. Also, he felt that seeing Professors that “looked like me” was as strong positive influence on him during his time there. He spoke
And Morehouse kind of solidifies you. As we’re not less than, we’re more than, we do all this despite.
He views that as an important foundation in his life.
This was not the case at the University of Portland. When asked the same question regarding race and classroom interactions, he mentioned that he felt a level of impatience from the professors when he asked questions in class. The spoke of feeling as though they (the professors) did not fully understand him. This dynamic was not apparent to him when his White classmates would ask questions. As he indicated “they were speaking the same language”.
Sanakatosh attended Georgia Military College, a school described as diverse. She describes the campus as nice, and the advisors as invested in her success. In this case the school has good Structural and interpersonal support. She was particularly complimentary of her academic advisor at GMC. When asked about the support she received from the staff she offered
We had good advisers. So, I remember my advisor, you have your introduction, what, what are you trying to achieve? so you, so you say, oh, I want to be a nurse. I’m going to put you these are the courses that you need to complete your prereqs to get you in nursing school.
After obtaining an Associates in Pre-Nursing she transferred to Georgia Southern’ s nursing program, a school described as predominantly White. Here she notes that the professors were not emotionally invested in the student’s success. She describes them as being very matter of fact, and disinterested. She also describes the campus as nice so there was good structural support, but the interpersonal support was lacking.
Rufus attended Florida A&M(FAMU) and earned a degree in Nursing. He describes the campus and material support as good, and good emotional investment from the professors and the faculty. Of note is that he mentions the first two years, there was less support from professors due to large class sizes, but the support increased in the final years upon entering the nursing program.
Michael spent a year at The University of New Orleans (a PWI) but left due to large class sizes and no sense of community at the school. This would qualify as structural and interpersonal failures He earned a degree in Chemistry at Xavier University (HBCU) and a nursing degree from FAMU. He mentions that the campus and support received at Xavier was one motivating force to attend FAMU. When specifically speaking of Xavier he says
Most of my professors were black. And so, to see these outstanding, excellent, just extremely intelligent black people up, you know, in front of you teaching you it was motivating at a lot, you know, a lot of times and their expectations were high. They cared about us, you know, but their expectations were very high.
For the respondents, the gain in structural support found in the White Institutions was offset by the lack of interpersonal support found in the Black institutions. Michael and Captain Rogers were both very pointed in remarking about how valuable representation was for them at the school and how it impacted their views on Black people in a positive manner.
The Perceived Quality of Pre-College Education. Being accepted to and completing college is facilitated by a high-quality secondary education. A rigorous academic curriculum especially in the areas of math and science has routinely been associated with success in post-secondary education. Two questions were asked of the respondents to determine the quality of their high school education: Tell me about the quality of education you received in high school, and what type of student were you?
On the questions regarding the quality of education received it is worth noting that the educational interactions in question haven’t been independently tested or researched by me. These questions are strictly the assessment of and opinions of the respondents. When asked to assess the quality of their high school education Captain Rogers, Sanakatosh, and Rufus responded “good”. Michael rated his experience as average. When pressed to assign his high school education a letter grade he gave it a “C”.
A paradoxical finding was that the three that rated their education as good were also the ones that reported to have at least been born into a Lower-Class socio-economic status. Michael, who is from the traditional heteronormative nuclear family model was the respondent that rated his experience as the lowest. This was a surprising finding for me and when pressed on its Michael responded that his school was “Not terrible, but not great either”. I followed up by asking Michael if he had any thoughts on why that was the case. He responded
I don’t, it was a Catholic High School. It just wasn’t at all…I don’t think it was strategically planned. But a lot of the kids I think, who didn’t have big educational aspirations probably went to this school, as opposed to some of the other schools in the city where you had to really perform well to get those get those Catholic schools.
As stated before, the remaining three describes theirs as good without qualification. In. Similar manner when asked about the type of students they were, the answers mirror the previous question. Captain Rogers, Sanakatosh, and Rufus, all described themselves as largely good students, while Michael mentions that he was an average student that didn’t “Apply” himself. This was even though his father, who was a teacher and a principal, encouraged his academic endeavors. Michael states that he was rebellious.
Sanakatosh references a more rigorous high school program of study and being particularly strong in math. She is quoted as saying
So, I was cerebral meaning that I love literature. Love literature. I’m strong in math. I took. college math in high school. I took all college courses, but I took college. So, I had credit going into college
This she felt better prepared her for the academics of college.
Rufus, in a similar vein, also self-reported as being a “pretty decent student” as did Captain Rogers, who mentions that he excelled at school as coping mechanism for dealing with a dysfunctional family dynamic, attended a magnet school that had a two-tract system. He describes it
But my high school was a magnet school that I applied to and had to write an essay and give a reference. And it was, uh, it was, it was a vocational or health occupations. You must pick one. Occupational was like automotive, computer science, manufacturing, communications, and occupant. And the health was nursing or dentistry or medical office skills. And so, I picked the medical cause I wanted to be a surgeon at that time. And um, yeah, that was good school. I took anatomy and physiology. It was so good that when I took it in college, it was like a review. And I was like, I already know all this stuff. Um, uh, math classes where my physics teacher was, Mr. Thompson was awesome. Yeah. Uh, like my high school laid the foundation for me now.
A unifying factor among all the respondents is that in their own assessment, the instruction received in high school (Captain Rogers, Sanakatosh, Rufus), or the at home resources (Michael’s educated teacher/principal), contributed to their academic collegiate readiness. Captain Rogers reported that he did “good” on the SATs, while the remaining three took the ACTs and reported doing “about average” on them.
The Family Structure/Support. To understand the personal factors impacting the respondents, one of the initial interview prompts was an opportunity for them to tell me about their experiences in childhood. I explained that they may include as little or as much personal detail as they feel comfortable with sharing. I felt that a telling of their childhoods would get into issues of family structure and support and unique challenges that each of them may have experienced. Two related findings emerged from this. The first is that of the four respondents, when asked if they would describe their childhood’s socio-economic statuses as Lower-class, Middle-Class, or Upper-Class three of the four opted to describe it as Lower-Class, while one described it as Middle class. Secondly, two of the four were from families that I would describe as having increased levels of interpersonal conflict.
When I asked Captain Rogers about his family’s socio-economic status, he described it as lower class and said that they were “pretty poor” when prompted to expound on his childhood he offered
Um, yeah. So, kind of told you where I was born and the first part of my life, uh, we were poor. Um, my mom had a lot of dead-end jobs at hotels and restaurants and things like that. Um, living in that town until I was about five and a half, uh, and a lot of just kind of random experiences that you have in small towns like that, you know, stepped on rusty nails.
And I was going to hit by cars and my sister got attacked by a dog on the beach. Like we, it was, it was crazy small town. My mom was always at work, and we were unsupervised.
Captain Rogers, in addition to the adverse impact of insufficient financial security, also had a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with his father who also struggled with drug addiction. A particular incident that highlighted this happened during a time when his mother and father were trying to reconcile, he shared a particularly troubling event
My first day of school comes at some point and he comes over the night before I sleep on the couch. Cause there’s a two bedroom and my mom need a bedroom. My sister needs a bedroom cause they’re ladies and he get drunk, and I wake up in the middle of the night and he’s just beating the shit out of my mom, like punch her in the face, breaks her nose. There’s blood, all like a lot of blood. I don’t understand how she didn’t pass out. Um, I’m lying there pretending I’m asleep. Uh, feeling like a little punk, my sister, who’s about nine bust out of her room and she’s like, leave my mom alone. And he’s like I’ll beat your ass too, go back in there. And so, she runs back in the room. I was just lying there, squeezing my eyes closed. And he’s like, I know you’re not asleep. Little punk ass, whatever. And that really affected me, I think. Um, so finally she gets him to leave. She calls the police on the way out. He kind of bent up our windshield wipers. Like it was a crazy thing
In Captain Rogers’ case, there’s was an elevated level of interpersonal conflict. He describes using the tumultuous home life as motivation to excel in academics and in sports and provided an impetus to attend college and obtain a better life.
The assessment of a low SES was also echoed by Rufus. When interviewing Rufus, as with the previous respondents, I asked him to define his neighborhood in an ordinal fashion. I specifically ordered the choices as Lower-Class, Middle Class, or Upper Class and he answered
You know, I would say majority of the people in our neighborhood growing up in the, you know, the 80s. When you look at it in retrospect, we were probably like, lower class. Most of everybody had, you know, just pretty much like day labor type jobs, nothing extravagant. But, um, and that was pretty much the whole community.
An important note regarding Rufus’ upbringing in a single mother, lower income family is that he in no way found this situation to be deficient or lacking. When prompted to speak on his childhood he said
Okay, my childhood was pretty very nice, wasn’t bad at all, grew up with a single mother. My mom was a custodian, raise three of us. My two sisters are also college graduates. She did this all on a very low salary, but we were all happy. We never went a day hungry, was nobody sad no complaints. Just having, my father was killed when I was one. So, it was really nothing. You know, nothing there really missing at that point. And we got everything we need. It never felt mistreated, or anything like that growing up. I never had that, you know, a single mother type thing, you know…
As opposed to the adversity faced by Captain Rogers, Rufus did not have the same family adversarial dynamics. He mentions his older sister that attended college. This provided an in-family example of college attendance. When asked about how supportive his family was, the spoke of his mother.
Oh, my mom, 100% whatever I was not doing in Monticello to get out of house, she was 300% behind it.
Demonstrated here is that even though Rufus doesn’t hail from the traditional, heteronormative, nuclear family structure, a supportive home environment is an asset to completing college.
Sanakatosh describes her origins as Lower-class but eventually elevated to Middle class due to the efforts of her maternal Grandmother. Her grandmother was instrumental in raising her as her own child and she thought of and referred to her grandmother as “mom”. When Sanokatosh talks of her childhood dynamics she said
Okay. So raised in …. a rural area. I was raised by my grandmother, but we had blended family so to speak. So, in the house, it was me, my brother, my biological mom, my grandmother, who I refer to as mom because she raised me, right, my uncle Craig, and my uncle Marian, initially, so I’m born in the projects, right. grandmother worked two jobs, got us out of the projects moved into a middle-class community.
Sanakatosh, family dynamic lies somewhere between Captain Rogers and Rufus’. Like Rufus, Sanakatosh had a close and personal relation with the matriarch of the family, which in her case was her maternal grandmother. Also, like Rufus she did not feel that this was lacking or deficient. She experienced this as “normal”. When talking of her upbringing she said
The structure of my being and how I have incorporated that in my life has been greatly because of my grandmother like so. I kind of mold myself. According to how she lived her life. She worked two jobs up until she retired. She she had been married before, and they are never you know, back in the day, you didn’t get divorce, right. stay married on paper, but she did get into another relationship for a very long time. But she never divorced her first. But she was a single female that took care of a lot of people. never complained. never complain. I Never knew. I never felt like I was missing out on anything because I really didn’t have a relationship with my father. But I never really, in my early years never really felt like anything was wrong It felt normal to me.
Sanakatosh was extremely close to her grandmother but the relationship with her mother was more contentious and like a sibling relationship rather than a mother daughter relationship. In a manner like Captain Rogers, she told of a physical altercation she once had with her biological mother.
And the final break with me. Me and my mom got into a biological mom got into a physical altercation concerning my sister. Who has Down’s syndrome? And there was bantering back and forth. You know, to a certain point, I remember saying that she’s not my child, like she wanted me to babysit, and I want to do what kids do. Like, I think I wanted to it was like a, it was something like Fourth of July or Memorial. I don’t know about how to do something with my I had to be 20 or 21 Young adults still wanted to just fuck up and do what young adults do. You want to hang with your boyfriend. You wanna go to all the festivities, and she wanted me to babysit. I’ll never forget that. I said, nope. And then, you know, I was like, this is your child, She’s not mine, She’s merely my sister. You know, and you can’t make me. You can’t. You can’t make me responsible for the mistakes that you have made. For yourself. This is what you wanted. Take care of her. We got into physical altercation. But I know that I knew that I could not live in the same space with her. because it psychologically, it messes with you
Here again, just as it was with Captain Rogers, Sanakatosh explained that she subconsciously used that as motivation to seek a life different that the one she was currently in.
Of the four, Michael was the only respondent whose family started and stayed in a Middle-Class status. The interesting and related factor discovered was that Michael was the only one of the four that had the traditional heteronormative nuclear family of a working father and stay at home mother. All the rest were raised by a single mother. When speaking of his childhood he remarked
I grew up in a household with both my parents. My father was an educator. So, education was always high on his list
When pressed more about his family and the support he received from them he said
A big a big influence. My father was a high school teacher, math teacher and principal. went on to become a high school principal. My mom was a stay at home, mother. So, my dad pushed, pushed, pushed. And I think I rebelled against it. For a long time, just because I was just being a rebellious kid. He wanted me to do well in school and I wouldn’t sit down and do the work. And that’s all it was.
While the obvious interpretation would be that coming from a low socioeconomic home situation would be a hinderance to educational attainment, I have found that it provided a substantial motivation to educational attainment and college attendance for two of the four respondents. When asked why they wanted to go to college all the respondents answered that the wanted to change their economic status or they indicated a desire to leave home. Captain Rogers encapsulated this when he stated
There’s no way I’m not going to college because I am not living like this no way. No. How, like, as soon as I turned 18, I am going far away to go to school.
When discussing the motivations for going to college with Sanokatosh, she referenced the fact that her biological mother expected her to take care of her sister in much the same way her grandmother took care of her. To this she said
And that was a primary reason why I went off to college, to break the cycle of thinking that you are held accountable for other people’s choices that they made in their past lives.
Rufus mentions his friends as the primary influence of why he wanted to attend college.
In every instance, all the respondents indicated that there was never an option to not go to college. Weather it was due to the expectations set by their families, or a desire to change location or socio-economic status, each respondents felt that going to college was the only option out of high school.
Peer Support. When asked about potential barriers to graduation, all respondents answered costs. When asked about the contributors to success all respondents mentioned Peer support, specifically the importance of their friends. Peer Support, weather it was from encouragement through hard times, or the peer pressure exerted, all respondents talked of the importance of their friends.
To highlight to importance of friendship to Captain Rogers, there was a moment in the interviews when I asked what some was of the things, he learned about hi self in college he shared
Yeah. Yeah, I just learned that I need people that I probably had some progress to make in that area, I started seeing a counselor during my last year at the university. Just talked about things, because I was having trouble like, coping with a lot of stuff. I think in your 20s, that’s that age where you start to things you suppressed as a kid that traumatize you, you start to think about them, and it’s hard. And suppressing them is what fueled me before, running from that stuff. And then once you bring it back out and start to think about it, you don’t have that rocket fuel anymore to to push you through the days, you just be like, why am I doing this? What’s this for? What’s the point? You know, and those type of things are tough when you’re in school, because you just need to stay motivated and stay on top of it as you know. So yeah, I just I learned a lot about… I really depend a lot on the folks around me, and maybe too much, and I can work on that. But at the same time, I just need to make sure that I’m in an environment where that’s healthy for me.
Here Captain Rogers expresses how important and cathartic it is to have the support of friends, his peers. In his quote he outlines how his capacity to deal with home life drama was ultimately limited and how that motivation was replaced by the support of his peers. His peers helped provide the healthy environment that he needed to succeed.
In the case of Sanakatosh, the importance of her friends lies in the fact that they followed a similar collegiate path. In other words, all her friends graduated college. It is understood from common experience that friends tend to be more similar than dissimilar, and that similarity can influence the behaviors of other members in the friend group. When I asked, he about the support she received from her friends she said
All my friends were supportive There’s not one friend I had that did not go off to college. So, they were all supportive.
Sanakatosh did not anyone in her immediate family that attended or graduated from college, so she didn’t benefit from having someone close to her modeling that behavior. However, what she lacked in familial examples she received from her peers. The fact that a group of her peers attended and graduated from college was important in establishing that expectation in her.
In the case of Rufus, when asked about why he decided to attend college he was more pointed in his answer. His response was
I will say my friends. And being in a small town that’s right next to a college town. Almost everybody you went to church with and everybody who was around, went to this major institution and thought all my best friends are going to college. So naturally, I want to hang out with you know, and then that would I was going to be it. So, to follow them. That was like, you know, man, the people that you do hang around with do influence you.
Again, the power of peer relationships and connections has a significant impact on the behavior of those with important ties. In Rufus’ particular case, he also had an older sibling who attended college and was also able to serve as a collegiate role model to him.
In the case of Michael, he too was very pointed in speaking to the importance of his friends in helping in graduate. I asked him about how many of his friends, and acquaintances that he made in college graduated. He said he couldn’t think of one that did not graduate. I then asked him more directly, how important were his friends in helping him graduate. He answered
They were important because we motivated each other. keep each other going. We had study groups and you know.
I followed that question up with a slightly different question of what the biggest contributor to your successful college graduation to which was he replied
I think the expectation of my family. And, I had it my friends were doing it, gonna complete it and be successful I had too as well.
Just as it was the case with the previous respondents, the influence, the power, the connectedness, and the peer pressure exerted by the friends of the respondents proved to be a significant factor in them graduating from college.
After thoroughly interviewing the very gracious respondents, I’ve come to some beliefs encapsulated in the forms of potential barriers and assets. The overriding potential barriers that all respondents expressed was the cost of college. College, in addition to being an enormous investment of time and mental energy, comes at a high financial cost. None of the respondents came from families that were able to fund their education. This is a phenomenon more readily seen in families of higher social class and status. Only one of the respondents received a scholarship. The rest had to work and/or take out student loan debt. The cost of a college education is a structural institutional barrier to people of limited financial means.
A surprising observation for me was the fact that even though adverse interpersonal family dynamics can serve as a barrier, it proved to be a motivating factor in obtaining a college education. While I would obviously not recommend toxic familial relationships to a collegiate end, properly framed it could prove to be a useful tool.
Finally, it appears that the support of Professors, advisors, and especially peer groups can mitigate many negative aspects and go a long way towards helping student’s complete college.
These observations fall in line with at least two the general themes that emerged through my literature review. One is the perceptions of racism in institutions of higher learning is real among the respondents I interviewed. Just as it is in other societal structures. All the respondents that attended PWIs expressed levels of micro aggression against them. The second theme is that despite micro aggressions, financial burdens and family interpersonal conflicts, the necessity of supportive relationships, especially among friendly peer groups, appears to be the most salient aspect of success in college. It goes along with the adage “no man (or woman) is an island.
The obvious limitation to this is study lies in the sample size. With just four interviews, one cannot extrapolate these findings to the larger Black college graduate population. Also, all the of the respondents were Registered nurses. An opportunity for further research could include studying Black graduates of different disciplines with a focus on how class, gender, and sexuality intersect with the challenges of college life.
Conducting this research was a personally rewarding and satisfying endeavor. I am grateful for the time granted me by the respondents and I not only learned a lot about the people I regard as my friends, but I also learned somethings about myself and the challenges that I also faced in obtaining a college degree. For that I am thankful.
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