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Sense of belonging key to success for minority students at SUNY Fredonia

FREDONIA – Patrice Douglas knew that she would be enrolling in a predominantly white public college, situated on the outskirts of a rural Chautauqua County village. She didn’t realize just how white SUNY Fredonia is until she arrived on campus as a freshman in 2013.

Douglas, an African-American, attended a predominantly white high school near Middletown.

“I was used to it,” she said. “But I figured when I came to college, there would be more minorities, more diversity.”

Douglas isn’t complaining. The junior social work major said she enjoys her undergraduate experience. She’s connected with other black women through a group on campus called the Crowned Rubies.

“We all empower each other,” Douglas said. “Basically, at the end of the day, we realize we’re not in it alone.”

Fredonia has made strides diversifying its student body in recent years. African-American students accounted for more than 5 percent of the overall student body in 2014, up from 1 percent in 2004.

But Fredonia, like many predominantly white, rural campuses, struggles to retain and graduate black students at a rate comparable to whites. A recent Buffalo News analysis found that African-American students were less likely than white students to earn a bachelor’s degree at every one of the 13 four-year colleges and universities in Western New York. The average graduation rate for black students at Western New York schools was 47 percent, compared to 62 percent for white students.

In 2009, the gap between white and black graduation rates at Fredonia was 40 percentage points – the highest disparity among Western New York schools that year.

Higher education officials know that students who feel a sense of belonging and connection to a school are more likely to do well academically and persist toward their degrees.

Jellema Stewart, director of Fredonia’s Center for Multicultural Affairs, and Monica White, associate vice president of student affairs at the college, both of whom are African-American, organized the women’s group three years ago as a way to help forge those connections. Fredonia already had a group for black men.

“We meet once a month and we talk about those tough issues,” Stewart said. “They name names and talk about experiences that aren’t so great.”

White, a Buffalo native, attended Fredonia in the 1990s and formed deep bonds with the few other black students on campus at the time. Those bonds helped her navigate the higher-education landscape.

“We all knew each other, and I would say the majority of us still stay in touch with each other,” White said. “I had a great college experience here.”

White hopes the Crowned Rubies can do for black women on campus now what her friends did for each other in the 1990s.

A dozen to two dozen women show up at the meetings to discuss anything from self-esteem to body issues to finances.

“I think it has anecdotally made a difference in the lives of these women,” White said.

Douglas has used her participation in Crowned Rubies as a springboard to becoming a residential adviser in one of the Fredonia dormitories and an orientation leader for incoming freshmen.

It’s too early to tell whether the group has helped Fredonia keep students on track to a degree. But the racial graduation gap between black and white students that was 40 percentage points dipped to 7 points in 2014.

“Even that 7 percent is too much,” said Terry Brown, Fredonia provost. “We accept a student and the promise is we will do everything we can do to educate them and get them graduated in four years, as long as they do their part.”

It’s a promise that’s often gone unfulfilled at many colleges, particularly for African-American students.

But not for Douglas. She’s on pace to graduate in 2017, four years after she started.