Supporting Black Students' Success at USF

By Mary McInerney, Office of Development Communications Posted Thu, 08/23/2018 - 09:00

Mike’l Gregory was accepted to 22 universities and colleges — including the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and UC Berkeley. He chose the University of San Francisco, not far from the home he shares with his mother, sister, and nephew in the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, because it offered something new.

For Gregory, 18, the emergent Black Achievement Success and Engagement (BASE) program made USF stand out, even among the Ivy League schools and the most competitive universities in the nation.

“I want the opportunity to be in an inclusive environment that really cares about the needs of African American students and the experience I’m going through,” he said. He is the first in his family to attend college.

Victoria Lamar is also one of the top black college freshman students in the country. She was accepted to Emory University and UC Berkeley, among others. She, too, chose USF because she wanted the opportunity to be in the first cohort of the BASE program.

“At USF, there is way more genuine support,” said Lamar, a pre-med major in psychology with a minor in neuroscience. In her hometown Atlanta, she juggled five jobs in high school and started her own mentorship program. Her college choice was important.

“I really like the mission at USF, and I feel comfortable there.”

Humane Leaders

As the new school year begins this month, 13 students will take their place as the first Black Scholars at the university, and they will reside with nearly two dozen other freshmen and sophomores in USF's first Black Living Learning Community. By joining the USF community, they represent important steps USF is taking toward building a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse university by increasing the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of black students.

The students are from across the country — Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota, Texas, Oregon, Georgia, Louisiana, and California. They are academically excellent, and some are also Getty Scholars in the new Honors College at USF. But the BASE program is why they are here.

“BASE is a program about real achievement for these students,” said Candice Harrison, faculty director of the BASE program and a history professor. “This is not just about eliminating racial disparities — it’s about fashioning humane leaders. It’s about recognizing these students’ potential and helping them live out that potential.”

By offering high-impact academic and extracurricular programs for undergraduate and graduate students that center on the unique and yet varied experiences of black students, BASE provides black students with a critical sense of belonging. The program’s components include:

  • The Black Scholars program, a rigorous and competitive academic program, grounded in Jesuit values, that is paired with scholarships, research, mentoring, and service opportunities to support students.

  • The Black Living Learning Community, a fun and engaging learning environment for freshman and sophomore students who share an interest in the historical, intellectual, and political traditions of black Americans.

  • The Black Resource Center, a safe, supportive space for black undergraduate and graduate students to connect with each other to receive mentoring and academic, spiritual, and emotional support services.

With BASE, the university is following best practices in higher education that today call for universities to identify ways to alleviate the marginalization and isolation experienced by black students and ensure their academic and co-curricular success.

Achievement and Inclusion
Since the 1990s, USF, like many California public and private schools, has struggled to recruit, retain, and graduate black students. Black students continue to be underrepresented at the university, and the numbers are clear:

  • While black students made up 11.4 percent of all students enrolled in private four-year institutions in the United States in 2015, they only made up 5.5 percent of the student body at California colleges and only 6.1 percent at USF. In first-year classes, the lag was even starker:  In 2016, for example, 3.3 percent of entering first year students were black — or only 53 of 1,597 students. 
  • Low rates of black students’ persistence to graduation is part of a larger historic and national trend at predominantly white institutions, with obstacles such as underrepresentation, racial isolation, diffuse support systems, and lack of financial resources frequently cited as factors.

While USF is celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of the founding of the Black Student Union on campus, it has struggled to provide the institutional support that black students asked for.

BASE was developed in response to the Black Student Union’s efforts several years ago to get the administration to streamline and strengthen the existing efforts to dismantle barriers to access, achievement, and inclusion for black students.

Students like Khadijah Powell ‘16 called on the university to commit to programs to support the retention of black students.

Today, Powell works for the national nonprofit Beyond 12, coaching first-generation college students, and she is proud of the impact she and other BSU students had in helping to establish BASE.

“Every time I think about my experience at USF and the work the BSU did to support the retention and attendance of black students, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of, and I feel like it’s bigger than me.”

Support for BASE
BASE also has strong support from parents and among alumni, including Dr. Joseph E. Marshall ‘68, trustee emeritus and co-founder of the BSU at the university in 1968. He is executive director of Alive & Free, in San Francisco, which offers a community of support to college-bound teens.

Mike’l Gregory met Marshall at Alive & Free several years ago. “Dr. Marshall is a really important person in my life. He helped me with my growth and taught me not to be afraid of being smart,” said Gregory.

Today, Gregory says his goal is to gain the self-confidence and education he needs to be a pediatrician and take care of families. As a founding member of BASE, he believes he is on the right track.

“It’s about the impact you make in life and what you do,” he said. “As a member of this cohort, my goal is to do the best I can and keep this program alive for future students. I want to serve my community and support others.”

This gift was made in support of Changing the World from Here: Campaign for the University of San Francisco.