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Bringing Northwestern to the People: Recruiting in Our Own Back Yard

Bringing Northwestern to the People: Recruiting in Our Own Back Yard

The history of African American students enrolling at Northwestern has fluctuated for the past 20 years, but no one anticipated the record low of only 82 students enrolling in the fall 1996. What happened?
A task force of diverse administrators, faculty members and alumni was assembled to research the problem and propose solutions. The task force found several themes specific to the recruitment of African Americans and all underrepresented minority groups. Most important were issues that centered on the African American community and its perception of Northwestern and the college’s image. Other key issues revolved around the campus climate (student intergroup relations, activities, advising, faculty mentoring and curriculum) for African American students and how that climate affects their feelings of value and inclusion, as well as their interest in the university.
To address these concerns, the task force turned its focus to an existing pattern. The number of applications from African Americans in Illinois has been consistent for the past 15 years, and at one point there was a 39 percent increase overall during that period. The recommendation was to start strengthening relations in our own back yard — Chicago. The objective was to create a staff position with joint accountability to admissions and student affairs in the spirit of student support and external outreach.
So, my charge was defined, but my methodology was anyone’s guess. I initially thought being a native of Chicago and having prior experience in minority academic services would afford me greater insight into how and where to begin my outreach efforts. After a few campus visits from various African American community and high school groups, I quickly learned that my familiarity with Chicago and my prior experiences were not enough to effect change. I had to rely on “me” — on being an African American, on being a product of Chicago schools, on wishing someone had taken the time to inform my parents and me, at a young age, about the opportunities an institution like Northwestern had to offer. That is when it clicked! I decided that rather than having students and parents make an initial visit to Northwestern, it was time to bring Northwestern to the
people. This is how our program “On the Road with N.U. Possibilities” was created.
The program allows Northwestern to reach out to African American high-school and middle-school students as well as their parents in their churches, community centers and organizations. The objective is to promote early college awareness and interest in Northwestern University.
A key component of this outreach program is the involvement of currently enrolled African American college students. These students serve as ambassadors by sharing their college experiences and their academic preparation for college. It is also an avenue for them to highlight how student involvement enhances the overall college experience. The goal of these partnerships for African American students, the community and the administration is to foster education attainment.
“On the Road with N.U. Possibilities” is continuing into its second year. During its first year, it traveled to nine different churches and community groups throughout the Chicago area, presenting to more than 300 high-school and middle-school students, parents and community leaders on everything from standardized college tests to the importance of a rigorous high school curriculum.
As a result of the program, African American communities in Chicago are listening, and even telling others about Northwestern and our efforts to not only inform them about the academic opportunities at Northwestern, but to guide families through a college admission process. 

— Melda Potts is the Coordinator of African American Student
Outreach and Assistant Director of Admissions at Northwestern

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