At many colleges, "freshman learning communities" have taken hold as a way to make sure more first-year students become second-year students. Participants in these communities live in the same dormitory and take some or all of the same courses. The idea is to integrate students' academic and non-academic lives, and to create an environment where students will help one another succeed.
The University of West Georgia is among the institutions with such a program. But starting this week, the university is creating a new learning community -- for black male students. Typically, freshman learning communities focus on general education or on a specific academic field. At West Georgia, the community for black men is an outgrowth of a professor's vision for helping black male students improve academically while challenging the negative images of black men that pervade society.
"We have high expectations for students, and we're telling students not to lower their expectations," says Said Sewell, an assistant professor of political science who is leading the effort. "This program is about the mentorship of brothers supporting each other."
Sewell believes that high academic achievement is linked to expectations -- in and out of the classroom. The idea of having black students in a learning community is an outgrowth of Black Men With Initiative, a program Sewell created with a few black male students four years ago. Participants attend special study halls, organize campus visits by black male professionals, and wear dress shirts and ties one day a week -- while avoiding sloppy dress all the time.
Appearances matter, Sewell says. There's nothing wrong with dressing informally much of the time, he says, but there's no reason for students to wear hats inside or "jeans that fall off your posterior."
Students who are embracing the message say they are tired of being looked down on. "We're trying to change the perception of black men," says Chiedu Areh, a senior who is active in Black Men With Initiative, which will provide mentors to the students in the learning community. "Right now, the perceptions are that black males are lazy, unintelligent and unmotivated. When I work hard academically or dress up in a suit and tie, I give people a different image."
Last year, the 25 students in Black Men With Initiative had a grade point average of 2.63. Black men at West Georgia had an overall GPA of 2.14.
Jan M. Bennett Jr., another senior active in the program, says that the semester before he joined, his GPA was 1.6. Today it's a 2.7. The difference? "When I got here, I didn't do the homework and would wonder why I failed the test. Now I go to the group study sessions and do my homework."
Applying that idea more broadly is the idea behind the expansion of the program. All black men who were admitted as freshmen were given information about the program and invited to apply. The 25 students will live in the same dormitory as other students in freshman learning communities and will take the same five courses: Introduction to Communications, Critical Thinking, U.S. History 1865-present, Freshman English, and a special interdisciplinary course to be taught by Sewell on "What Do You Know About Manhood?"
Critical Thinking and Sewell's course will have only the black male students enrolled. The other courses will also have other students from West Georgia. During the students' second semester, they will take four courses as a group and one course that they pick individually.
Sewell received his undergraduate education at Morehouse College, known for its rigor and for being the only historically black college with only men as students. West Georgia couldn't be more different. While more than 20 percent of its students are black, the enrollment of African-American students -- as is the case at most colleges -- is lopsided with women.
"I'm not trying to create a Morehouse at West Georgia. It wouldn't work," he says. "But there are certain systems in place at historically black colleges that I think are needed at any university."
In particular, he notes that he wants students to know that someone cares about them -- all the time. All the students get his home and cell numbers, and are told that they can call him at any hour, and that he'll be checking on them, too.
Asked if he worries that the program could be considered segregationist because it is only for black men, Sewell says that while he does not know of any colleges taking this approach, he has watched the success of some public schools that have focused on the separate needs of black male students. Without a special focus, Sewell says, "African-American males frequently do not utilize resources to help them succeed academically."
The black students in the program, he says, "will have a built-in support system" that should encourage more of them to focus on their studies and to graduate.
The university system in Georgia has made increased black enrollment a priority, he says, and his university's administration has been strongly supportive. He rejects the idea that the program could be viewed as in any way political or controversial because it is only for black men. "This is an academic program. There is an issue in this state with low enrollment rates [of black male students] and we want to address that problem."
Robert Kelly, a freshman who is just starting in the learning community for black men, says he saw the program as a way "to be successful in college right away and to have people to study with."
Kelly, who wants to major in psychology, says he is willing to make the extra effort required of students in the program. "You can still have fun, but there's a good way and a bad way to have fun," he says. Dressing well and studying hard achieve many goals, Kelly says. "Most people see black men as not having goals. We do have goals."