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Sacramento State Creates Nation's First Black Honors College

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Sacramento State —  home to the largest number of Black students within the California State University (CSU) system — is launching what will become the nation’s first-ever Black Honors College.

Slated to begin operating in the fall, the honors college will enroll students who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher and an interest in Black history, life, and culture.  

Dr. J. Luke WoodDr. J. Luke Wood“This is one component of a larger effort to increase success rates for Black students,” said Dr. J. Luke Wood, who returned to his alma mater seven months ago to helm the sixth largest institution of the 23-campus CSU system. “We’re creating an institution within the institution.”

Unlike Honors Colleges at some other institutions that have created specialized programs to attract Black students, Sacramento State’s model is radically different. The entire college is being designed specifically with the Black student in mind.

The college will have its own dean of students, director, counselors, academic advisors, and outreach and support staff, and it will draw from existing faculty who have “a demonstrated record of success in teaching Black students,” said Wood.

The students who are accepted into the college will complete their General Education (GE) classes there and will be taught in small classes and mentored by mostly Black Sacramento State faculty members. 

“It’s not just taking any GE class, we’re handpicking GE classes that focus on the Black experience,” said Wood, who noted that the college curriculum will be broadly influenced by Pan-African studies. “It’s a specialized, accelerated, elite experience,” he said.

In recent years, California institutions are steadily losing many of their community college graduates who go on to transfer to for-profit colleges or opt instead to attend an historically Black college or university in another state. Wood is hoping to recruit some of those students to his campus. 

“In my mind, I want everyone to attend an HBCU if they can, but we also know that’s not the right placement for every student depending on where they’re from, and so basically, it’s our alternative to that,” he said, adding that he wants to replicate the HBCU experience for the students who enroll in the Honors College. “The long-range vision is that we establish this Honors College focused specifically and designed specifically for Black people by Black people.”

The genesis for the idea came full circle last June, following the release of a CSU report, titled “Advancing Black Student Success and Elevating Black Excellence in the CSU: A Call to Action."  The plan was designed to both elevate Black excellence and address the continuing decline in Black student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates across the 23 CSU universities. 

Wood — whose research focuses on racial equity in education — saw an opportunity. While he knows that a Black Honors College will likely draw some detractors, particularly in the wake of ongoing attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion, he said that he remains committed to the idea. 

“I’m not going to let what is needed for our people stand in the way, because it makes some people feel uncomfortable,” said Wood, who noted that the Sacramento State model could eventually be replicated at other institutions across the nation in the future. 

The end goal, he said, is to create a “system and network within institutions focused on creating the highest quality of access for Black students.”

So far, administrators have already set aside over 6,000 square feet of space to house the college. There will be a seminar room, study space, and lounge, all headquartered on the first floor of the library.

“The library symbolically serves as the central point of academic learning in an academic institution.” Wood said. “Too often when people think about our community, they don’t think excellence; they don’t think of the best and brightest minds, but we know that’s not true, so we’re creating an institution that supports that.”

Additionally, selected students will have the opportunity to reside in a living and learning community.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford, EHE Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University, said that she is impressed by this effort.

"I am not surprised to learn that President Wood is continuing to make history," said Ford. "His equity-grounded vision for this wonderful college is consistent with what I know of Luke. I will never forget his Black Minds Matter conference several years ago; the first of its kind that I’m aware of.  Now, as president, he continues to think outside the box with brilliant initiatives such as this Black Honors College. Thousands of Black students will now see their dreams become a reality."

Wood said that there has been a positive response to the college and that he’s secured initial funding and support to enroll its first 500 students. Recruiters are pushing the college as a selling point at high schools across California, and the university has started a social media campaign, hoping to become a magnet for interested students.

Ruth Williams, who will serve as staff director for the Honors College, said that university officials are working around the clock to help mitigate barriers that students might face as they progress through higher education.

She and Dr. Boatamo “Ati” Mosupyoe,  who is currently the associate dean in the College of Social Sciences & Interdisciplinary Studies but will serve as the inaugural dean of students and chief administration officer of the Black Honors College, said that they are excited about what the college will become. 

"I wake up every morning energized,” said Mosupyoe. “I am looking forward to the challenge and moving this to greater heights.”

For Wood, simply having a large number of Black students enrolled at Sacramento State isn't enough. 

“While we have the highest population of Black students, we are in the bottom quartile for success, and have been for many years,” and the Black Honors College will seek to reverse that trend, he said.

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