Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Impressions: African American First-Year Students' Perceptions of a Predominantly White University

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Impressions: African American First-Year Students' Perceptions of a Predominantly White University

Article excerpt

This article describes a study of African American first-year students' impressions of a predominantly White public university. Participants (N = 10) were asked to take photographs illustrative of their perceptions of the campus environment and to discuss their photographs in individual and small group interviews. Six themes emerged from these data: the physical beauty of the campus, the immensity of the campus, participants' consciousness of being Black on campus, the influence of Greek-letter organizations, the prevalence of voluntary racial/ethnic separation, and participants' concerns about preparing for their futures. Implications of these findings for collegiate policies and practices are discussed. Recommendations include continuing support for initiatives such as TRIO's Student Support Services program, which promote minority student recruitment and retention.

INTRODUCTION

Historically, African Americans have been underrepresented as a proportion of the total enrollment of students at institutions of higher education in the United States. Prior to the 1960s, African Americans participated in higher education primarily at institutions known as HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) (Blackburn, Gamson, & Peterson, 1978; Fleming, 1984; Willie & Cunnigen, 1981). By the close of the 1960s, the majority of African American students enrolled at institutions of higher education were attending predominantly White colleges and universities (PWCUs) (Fleming, 1984; Willie & Cunnigen, 1981). Today, most African American students continue to attend institutions of higher education where the racial/ ethnic composition of the students, faculty, and staff is predominantly White. Also, most U.S. college and university students, including African Americans, are enrolled at public institutions, or those that are controlled at some level by the government of the state or municipality in which they are located and that receive some financial assistance from that governmental body (Carter & Wilson, 1997; National Center for Education Statistics, 1995).

The graduation rates of African American students at public PWCUs historically have been and continue to be low when compared to those of White American students (Allen, 1991; Astone & Nunez-Wormack, 1990; Carter & Wilson, 1996,1997; Fleming, 1984; Gose, 1997; Mow & Nettles, 1990; Willie & Cunnigen, 1981). Carter and Wilson (1996) contend that a more than 20% gap in overall college graduation rates exists between Blacks and Whites. Fisk-Skinner and Gaither (1992) report a dropout rate for White undergraduates of 55% compared to 71% for Black undergraduates. The majority of U.S. students who leave institutions of higher education have been found to do so during or immediately after their first year of study (Feldman & Newcomb, 1969/1994; Levitz & Noel, 1989; Tinto, 1993). As Tinto notes, "The character of one's experience in that [first] year does much to shape subsequent persistence" (p. 14).

In addition to the underrepresentation of African American students in persistence and graduation at PWCUs, many Black students have reported perceiving the environments of these campuses as unwelcoming, if not hostile or even threatening (Allen, 1991, 1996; Astone & Nunez-Wormack, 1990; Clay & Sherrill, 1991; Crosson, 1988; Dalton, 1991; D'Souza, 1992; Ehrlich, 1990; Fleming, 1984; Green, 1989; Hurtado, 1992; Malaney & Shively, 1995; Mow & Nettles, 1990). Near the end of the 1980s, incidents of campus ethnoviolence, or physically or psychologically harmful acts targeting persons because of characteristics related to their ethnicity or race, began to appear more often in the media (Ehrlich, 1990). Between fall 1986 and the end of 1989, the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence noted that approximately 250 publicly reported incidents of ethnoviolence took place on U.S. college campuses, with the majority of these incidents involving Black students as their victims (Ehrlich, 1990). …

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