Redefining success for African-American college students

Story by TREVOR RAPP

President Barrack Obama stood before the nation on Feb. 12, 2013, in his State of the Union address and showed just how much African-Americans can achieve, not necessarily by what he said, but just by being the one who said it.

While debate surrounded what he said, the fact that an African-American was standing in the office as president of the United States of America for a second term was indisputable.

His words also seemed to be directed at others who may struggle to find success because they are classified by others as a minority.

“It is — it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country,” Obama said, “the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love.”

So what does an African-American university student need to do to find success? For Ennis Henderson, a senior at the University of Utah studying business, one of the most important steps is to take control of the process himself instead of giving that control to others.

“I was brought up in the South by a family of strong and proud men and women,” Henderson said. “They raised me to be a capable, responsible and dignified man. It isn’t up to whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians or anyone else to ‘Let Me’ enjoy anything, much less my own success. I won’t allow a person to position themselves in my life in such a way that they have that kind of power over me.”

A strong sense of self-sufficiency may be one of the reasons Henderson is experiencing success in a campus whose student demographics is only 1 percent African-American.

Defining African-Americans’ struggle for success based not upon outside limiting factors imposed upon them, but rather internal characteristics that have led to success is happening far too little, wrote Professor Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

In “Black Male Student Success in Higher Education: a report from the National Black Male College Achievement Study,” Harper wrote, “For nearly a decade, I have argued that those who are interested in Black male student success have much to learn from Black men who have actually been successful. To increase their educational attainment, the popular one-sided emphasis on failure and low performing Black male undergraduates must be counterbalanced with insights gathered from those who somehow manage to navigate their way to and through higher education, despite all that is stacked against them — low teacher expectations, insufficient academic preparation for college-level work, racist and culturally unresponsive campus environments, and the debilitating consequences of severe underrepresentation, to name a few.”

The study deliberately quickly passes over “anti-deficit research,” such as the fact that in 2002 black males only represented 4.3 percent of students enrolled in higher education, a statistic that hasn’t changed since 1976. Those omissions are not because they are not important. Harper just wants to focus on what’s going right instead. This includes the stories and statistical analysis of more than 200 young, successful black males who were able to find success through the following factors:

  • having parents with consistently high expectations
  • having influential teachers previous to college
  • having a “college-bridge” opportunity that allowed them to get acquainted with the university and classes before starting
  • finding ways to minimize the stress of paying for college
  • being focused in their classes.

Harper wrote there are likely many African-Americans on college campuses who “completely contradict popular narratives of Black male hopelessness. They are somehow debunking longstanding caricatures of Black undergraduate men as lazy, unmotivated, under prepared for college, intellectually incompetent, and disengaged. Find them. Ask them how they got there.”

For Henderson, a student at the U who has achieved success in multiple areas, the success has come from himself. Whether it was from retiring from the United States Marine Corps as an “E-6 Gunnery Sergeant, with an impeccable record, numerous awards, accolades and abilities,” to helping his two daughters graduate from college with graduate and post-graduate degrees.

“I look at these clowns [who try to suppress African Americans] and laugh.” Henderson said. “Therefore — ‘No!’ No one has the power to allow or deny me the opportunity to enjoy my success, unless I’m foolish enough to give it to them. That won’t happen.”