This fall semester, Massasoit Community College achieved a new first. It became the first two-year school in the state of Massachusetts to allow students to attain degrees in Black Studies.
With courses ranging from “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity” and “Contemporary Issues in the Black Community” to “The Black Arts Movement” and “The Civil Rights and Black Power Movement,” students at Massasoit can now pursue the interdisciplinary degree at the two-year school, both online and in-person.
So far, the program has seen a slow uptake, but leaders are optimistic about its future, hopeful and dedicated to building and growing the program at a time when other institutions are cutting back on ethnic and Black studies programs amid pushback against diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
Ten years in the making
The story of Black Studies at the Massachusetts public community college goes back a decade. That’s when student responses to a survey about the need for a culturally diverse curriculum prompted the creation of two courses related to the Black experience in film and music, says Dr. Carine Sauvignon, executive dean for Massasoit’s Canton campus.
In 2020, as interest grew and Black student enrollment increased, Sauvignon crafted a Black Studies curriculum and submitted it to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. The program got approval last spring.
The City of Brockton, where Massasoit is headquartered, is at least 41% Black or African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Located south of Boston, Massasoit has a student population composed of almost 60% minority students with 36% identifying as Black, Sauvignon says. The city and the community college have a burgeoning Cape Verdean population.
"[Increased Black student enrollment], and unfortunately with the events that took place during that time – between George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – we were kind of called to task about providing more opportunities to engage our Black students in higher education, as much as with the community that we serve,” Sauvignon says. As such, the school began offering the degree program this fall.
Black Studies at a community college
School leaders and experts in higher education say that, while it is unusual, a community college with a Black Studies degree program can be attractive to many students.
“In general, a Black Studies degree is very multi-faceted, especially for the population and the communities that we serve,” Sauvignon says. “It's a good place in time right now, where critical race theory is being embraced, where understanding and appreciating cultures is being embraced, with racial equity and DEI initiatives being embraced.”
Massasoit’s degree, Sauvignon says, is foundational in being able to provide students with an understanding of a different perspective of how life operates for certain groups of people. To her, the degree program and the courses needed to earn the degree will contribute to opening up all students’ worldviews about how race affects various areas of life, such as criminal justice reform, education, and healthcare disparities.
It’s not just for Black students, she says. Such a program allows students of all backgrounds to better understand the Black experience.
"The goal is to provide the foundation for Black students to understand who they are, where they come from, and where they can go,” Sauvignon says. “For non-Black students, it's an opportunity to learn about different cultural experiences that would enhance their academic learning."
Black Studies is American history, and it’s valuable to be aware of the realities of the two, says Dr. Elijah Anderson, the Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University. A prominent sociologist, Anderson cites the fate of Crispus Attucks, a sailor of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry who is often regarded as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and the first American killed in the American Revolution.
Black Studies allows for students – particularly those unfamiliar with the Black narrative and those in law enforcement – to gain exposure and potentially become less wary, says Dr. Shawn Utsey, professor of psychology and chair of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"Most people – most white Americans, and many other people of color who are later arrivals to this dynamic – haven't a clue about the Black experience, the Black narrative, the contributions of Black Americans to American history and culture,” says Utsey, who added that many police officers often come through the community college route, or even the four-year route, and were educated in high schools and communities where they had very little if any contact with Black people.
“If we can expose them to let them know that Black folks are just different sometimes – there's not anything to be afraid of – people would perhaps be less alarmed in the presence of Black people, and we will reduce the many, many mishaps that occur,” says Utsey.
The value of the Black Studies courses isn’t siloed from other academic pursuits either. When designing the curriculum, the interdisciplinary approach of the curriculum and transferability were important considerations, Sauvignon says. As such, credits from Massasoit’s Black Studies courses count toward liberal arts and humanities elective requirements aligned with most of the school’s degrees and will factor into transfer credit to four-year colleges, she says.
The program offers students a liberal arts background as they consider transitioning into a four-year institution, says Massasoit President Ray DiPasquale, calling it a “door opener.”
Small program, larger hopes
Massasoit’s Black Studies degree program has three students who have declared it their major as of Fall 2023, according to Sauvignon, though more than 40 students are enrolled in courses that the program offers.
The goal is to spread the word and promote visibility for the degree program through presentations and community collaborations, all with the hope of helping boost enrollment numbers for the coming years. Most of the courses are taught by 10-15 adjunct instructors, but experts warn that if the program is to grow, the college will need to invest in at least a full-time faculty position. Massasoit officials agree.
More than 5,000 new and returning students were enrolled at Massasoit this fall, according to DiPasquale. Leaders are aiming to increase enrollment in the Black Studies degree program specifically by at least five more students each semester.
“Next fall, we're obviously a lot more optimistic that we'll see people actually going into the major,” DiPasquale says. “As we get the word out, I'd love to see 15-20 students – which would be a pretty good number of majors each year – starting this program. As the word spreads, we're very optimistic that 15-20 next fall would be a pretty realistic goal for us."
Now that Black Studies has launched, the school plans to do the same for other demographics as well, DiPasquale says.
“This isn't the end,” he says. “We want to talk about Women's Studies. We want to talk about Latino Studies. As we look to the future, we want to make sure our students have an opportunity to understand the importance of all of these elements in education.”