Wanted: New Members for Black Grad Student Group
By Cheryl D. Fields
At the top of the agenda for the annual meeting of the National Black Graduate Student Association, held in Washington at Howard University late last month, was a call for members to get involved in recruitment.
Roughly 250 students, a number of whom were undergraduates, turned out for the 14th annual meeting. And while the executive council extended a warm welcome to these participants, Adrienne Dixson, president and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Lou Edward Matthews, vice president for membership affairs who attends Illinois State University, made it clear that the organization needs more members in order to expand its influence and to improve the number and quality of benefits it offers.
“The movement of this organization does not stop with the executive council,” Dixson said at the annual meeting’s opening plenary.
Founded in 1989, following a Black graduate student conference hosted at the University of Michigan, NBGSA is committed to supporting the success of African American graduate students. While the main benefit of membership is attendance at the annual conference, where members present papers and have an opportunity to interact with education leaders and policy-makers, the group also provides ongoing support throughout the year through its quarterly newsletter, list serve and Web site, all of which feature information about scholarships, internships and other opportunities. Regional meetings also give students a chance to interact with other graduate students in their area. Networking opportunities such as these can be invaluable to students who seek the camaraderie of Black peers — especially those who are pursing terminal degrees at institutions where they are one of few Black graduate students on their campuses, if not the only one.
NBGSA, headquartered at Howard University and run entirely by students, also works to encourage undergraduate students to pursue graduate study. Membership is open to graduate and undergraduate students, academicians, institutions, corporations and other groups and/or individuals who are interested in supporting students of African descent.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the organization,” said one student who came to the annual meeting from UCLA. Once she learned about the association, she said she was surprised to find that few of her colleagues at UCLA were aware of its existence. Matthews agreed this is a problem — especially in the West, where schools and Black graduate students tend to be more spread out. But even at historically Black colleges and universities, where visibility of the organization is less of a problem, he says, students often are reluctant to join, perhaps because the networking opportunities offered by the group may not appear any greater than those already available at their home campus.
“Right now, the membership is stuck,” says Tamara C. Bertrand, a longtime member who has held several positions on the executive council and is a graduate student at Florida State University. Noting that membership has hovered between 250 and 300 members for the past several years, she says the only way the trend can be broken is if members become more actively involved in recruiting. “We don’t currently have the structure to handle 10,000 members, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.”
The organization’s potential for growth is substantial, given that the number of African Americans who are pursuing graduate study in the United States these days is in the hundreds of thousands. In 1997, that enrollment figure exceeded 130,000, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
As the attendance at the NBGSA annual meeting reflects, the majority of African American graduate students are female. At the master’s level in 1997, female degree recipients outnumbered males by roughly two to one. That same year, at the doctorate level, the gap was narrower, with males representing roughly 42 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Traditionally, most NBGSA members join when they register for the annual conference. Membership dues are included in the conference registration fee, which ranges from $200 to $305 depending on when the applicant registers (there are discounts for early registration) and the applicant’s status (undergrad, grad or faculty). Recently, however, individual and affiliate membership applications have become available online, a move the executive council hopes will make it easier for people around the country to join at any time of the year.
Individual student memberships cost about as much as the average movie date, ranging from $15 for graduate students to $10 for undergraduates. Undergraduate members share most of the benefits that graduate students enjoy except they are not allowed to vote. Faculty members who wish to support the organization can join NBGSA for an annual fee of $45.
NBGSA also offers affiliate memberships of $50 to organizations that are officially recognized as serving the interests of Black graduate students on their home campuses. At the time of the March annual meeting there were only four such affiliates: Black Graduate Student Organizations at the University of Washington, Florida State University, University of Memphis and Texas Tech University.
In recent years, the Internet has improved communications between the members. Matthews and his colleagues on the executive council are seeking other ways for the Web to bring the NBGSA community closer together and to boost membership
“We want to move the organization in a direction that is meaningful to our membership,” Dixson says. “We need you all to help us.”
— For more information about NBGSA visit their Web site at <www.nbgsa.org>.
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