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Sister to Sister: Strengthening Connections of Black College Women

It is bad enough that some Black college students who attend predominantly White institutions are made to feel inferior or “less than” during their higher education tenure, as identified by Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel in his analysis of the theory of “othering.” Despite battling practices and policies that contribute to continued marginalization, degree-seeking Black women have pushed forward.

According to the 2009 Census Bureau statistics, college participation rates of Black college women doubled between 1971 and 2005. While that is good news, the bad news is that this population continues to struggle with degree completion.

The Census also notes that only one in five black women over the age of 25 hold bachelor’s degrees. This fact alone should heighten awareness related to barriers that need to be identified and rectified. One of the best ways to learn more about what these barriers are should come from the women themselves.

Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, author of “Having Their Lives Narrowed Down? The State of Black Women’s College Success,” argues that program models that put emphasis on the personal stories, voices and experiences of the student have the potential to shed a better light on institutional deficiencies and other contributing factors that negatively impact the lives of college women. It also moves away from analyzing Black college women as one homogenous group, as she points out in her 2015 study that examines the impact of personal characteristics and organizational structures of colleges in determining the success of this group.

The potential of “purposeful connections” with other college women, student affairs practitioners and other professionals may be one way to assist Black college women in their efforts to understand degree-completion barriers so that they can burst through them instead of being suppressed by them.

Many would argue that college campuses currently possess numerous connection pathways and organizations in which Black college women can become involved or connected with others. This may be true, but many of these organizations are student-driven and may require monetary investments, rigorous membership application processes or specific affinities that may not necessarily focus on empowerment practices.

Dr. Lani V. Jones, an assistant professor at the University at Albany-SUNY and a licensed clinical social worker, suggests that institutions should be more intentional about creating spaces for Black college women that address aspects of their psychosocial experiences. These types of experiences should not only include empowerment techniques and practices, but skill development, competency training and personal interactions that integrate critical cultural conversations.

One such program, which started as an online Facebook group, is now a vibrant monthly program at Simmons College in Louisville, Ky. Affectionately known as the Women of Simmons, this program has been designed to offer Black college women a sacred space to share their voices, exchange experiences and interact with professional women from the community on various issues of concern. What is even more captivating for participants is the love and positive energy showered on each other through storytelling and “What are you going through?” segments.

A compelling interest of all women is a special session known as the “hot seat.” A chair is placed in the middle of all participants. Someone volunteers to share an issue or barrier with which they need assistance or advice regarding a decision that must be made. This portion of the program is high-risk because it causes the participant to share personal information. As a result, it is placed toward the end of the session after participants have spent the hour learning, sharing and confiding in one another.

One student described her experience in the program this way: “Women of Simmons has been an added bonus to the many ways Simmons College of Kentucky has helped to nurture and groom me into the woman I am today. Black women tend to overlook their own value, often exhausting themselves trying to fit a mold that was never meant for them in the first place. Women of Simmons brings college women into our circle and reminds us to embrace every part of ourselves. Because of the supportive encouragement received from attending our empowerment sessions, myself and others have moved through life challenges with grace and dignity. Providing a safe place for these important conversations to take place has truly made the difference in the completion my degree program on time.”

As a student affairs practitioner who works with Black college women on a daily basis, I am convinced that avenues created to support this population should also be aimed at decreasing internal barriers such as “impostorism,” which may also contribute to college persistence, and real or perceived external barriers. Program models such as this also can provide practitioners valuable insights to help minimize or eradicate both in order to help increase the persistence of Black college women, and should ultimately be established to include components that assist our students with sharing their voices so that they can help others share theirs.

Phyllis L. Clark is a doctoral student at Bellarmine University and Associate Vice President, Student Affairs and Dean for Student Success at Simmons College of Kentucky.

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