A Golden Opportunity

With a spike in Black and Hispanic college enrollment, junior faculty have an unprecedented opportunity to mentor minority students to graduation and into faculty ranks.

As a junior faculty member, Dr. John Youngblood faces a very different group of students than the relatively few minority faculty members who preceded him.

Youngblood, a Ph.D. graduate in communications from the University of Kentucky, is an assistant professor of English and communication at The State University of New York at Potsdam. He was the first Black scholar to teach in his department, and even won the department’s outstanding teaching award in 2004-2005.

Youngblood and the hundreds of other doctoral students and graduates I know through my work at the Southern Regional Education Board are not simply seeing diversity in higher education by looking in the mirror.

There is also more racial and ethnic diversity in their classes than ever before. Increasingly, the job of young minority faculty members like Youngblood will be to educate students from around the world — representing literally dozens of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

What a wonderful turn of events.

More than one-third of the nation’s college enrollment growth from 1995 to 2005 was among Black and Hispanic students. Enrollment grew for those students by 50 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

About 1.3 million more students from these groups enrolled in college in 2005 than in 1995, a remarkable achievement for a nation only 38 years removed from enforced racial segregation in some states and schools.

All young professors and scholars can help our nation make more social and economic progress than any other generation of faculty to date — through the teaching and mentoring of these students.

The challenge, however, in educating our traditionally underserved brothers and sisters involves how we teach and mentor and in the leadership roles young faculty members play on their respective campuses. Young faculty members must encourage more minority students to finish college degrees and urge more of them to pursue graduate studies.

Fact is, the overall college graduation rate nationally is only about 55 percent for public four-year institutions and even lower for Black and Hispanic students. We’ve got to do better for all students, and junior faculty members are in the best position to help more minority students graduate. What good is it for more minority young people to enter college if fewer than half finish?

Today’s faculty members also have a chance to change the face of higher education in America. Faculty jobs are projected by the federal government to be one of the most in-demand over the next decade. Those of us in academia should encourage more students to aspire to faculty positions during a time when they are most needed, or we will have to wait decades for another similar opportunity.

There is ample room for more minorities in academia: If every one of the Black (1,659), Hispanic (1,370), and Native American (118) students who earned a Ph.D. in 2006 chose an academic career, there still would not have been enough candidates to ensure that every college or university in our nation (more than 3,000 total) could hire just one minority professor. Some disciplines still have hardly any minority Ph.D. graduates.

How can today’s faculty members help? By following the lead of the faculty mentors we meet in the SREB program who do everything they can to help doctoral students succeed. They laugh and cry with students, and some of them even offer students a place to stay or financial help — anything to help them reach their goals. You may have had such mentors yourself.

Mentoring is one of many skills we try to help our SREB scholars and those from similar programs learn at the Compact for Faculty Diversity Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, the nation’s largest annual gathering for minority Ph.D. students and their faculty mentors, held each fall.

The program I direct, the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, provides fellowships, mentoring, leadership training and more for doctoral students who have enrolled on their own merits at participating colleges and universities. We recently received word of our 430th doctoral graduate in the past 16 years.

My belief is that young faculty members like Youngblood should recognize from whence they came and embrace the responsibility that circumstance and fortune have provided. “I am charged with energy to give back in so many ways, I shake at the awesomeness of the responsibility (and) the duty of this cherished mission,” Youngblood told us in an interview after he finished his Ph.D. “I owe more than I ever could repay,” he said.

Now, it’s the new generation of faculty members’ responsibility to lift students higher.

Dr. Ansley Abraham is the founding director of the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, which is based in Atlanta. He can be reached at ansley.abraham@sreb.org. For more information about the SREB program, visit www.sreb.org and click on “Doctoral Scholars.”

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