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Structured For Success

When North Carolina native Evan Raleigh was in search of the perfect college, he had three things in mind.

“The three most important factors in my college search were the strength of the school’s academic reputation, the size of the school, and the school’s location and proximity to home,” says Raleigh, 21, who found all three in the form of Wake Forest


But Raleigh, who received a full academic scholarship to study at Wake Forest, credits the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) for his current success in the classroom.

Minority students like Raleigh represent the kind of enrollment results that officials at Wake Forest have fought to see. 

In 1985, the OMA took a primary role in Black student recruitment and admissions in collaboration with the admissions office by creating merit-based financial aid awards and scholarships that specifically targeted Black students. However, in 1999, tuition increases and new admissions and recruitment policies that discouraged race-based financial awards were set in place, resulting in a Black student enrollment drop from a high of 337 students in 1998 to a low of 244 students in 2004.

The OMA has since transformed its role and has linked with other university offices — including the admissions and financial aid departments — to aggressively recruit and retain students of color. The results have been heartening, and Black student enrollment continues to show steady increases, officials say.

Additionally, the OMA has helped Wake Forest boast one of the highest graduation rates of Black students in the country. For example, records provided by the university indicate that four-, five- and six-year graduation rates for Black female students in 2006 were 97 percent. In that same year, the four-year graduation rate for Black male students was 71.4 percent and the five- and six-year graduation rates were 91.7 percent.

School officials note that OMA’s success in recruiting and retaining minority students is, in part, because their commitment is more than just a nine-to-five operation.

“The OMA staff at Wake Forest University operates as gatekeepers within the university system because we weave our operational goals into the fabric of the campus community in order to provide an infrastructure that empowers students of color for personal, academic and professional success,” says Dr. Barbee M. Oakes, the director of the OMA at Wake Forest who has been a member of the OMA team since 1995. “Here in the university community we let students know that they matter from day one to the day of graduation, and we help them navigate the journey of higher education. Black men attending traditionally White institutions, especially, need to know they matter.”

Raleigh credits OMA officials with helping him secure funding to participate in a summer study project in Honduras.

“They have been really instrumental in allowing me to network with others, and it has really served as a gateway to opportunities,” he says. “They’re a vital part of all minority students’ lives here, and I really don’t know what we would do without them.”

In addition to academic and professional development services, OMA offers various leadership and mentoring programs, academic tutoring and advising, study abroad, internship and financial aid assistance, and programs that specifically target Black male students. Oakes adds that OMA officials eagerly meet with prospective students and their families during various campus events throughout the academic year.

Sheereen Miller-Russell, a 2000 graduate of Wake Forest, says the OMA gave her a sense of direction that ultimately helped propel her toward her current career path.

The OMA “was really the reason I chose to go to Wake Forest,” says Miller-Russell, who is an account executive with New York-based MTV. “With its full open door policy, I saw how genuine and how respectable everyone was and that really made me think, if I come here I really will be part of the campus community.”

Student body president Jermyn Davis, 21, transferred from New York’s Juilliard School to Wake Forest because of its liberal arts curriculum, close-knit campus and strong emphasis on community involvement.  Davis says the OMA aggressively makes students aware of available scholarships, grants, internships and volunteer opportunities and provides a type of support that extends beyond the classroom.

“Being a minority on a predominately Caucasian campus, you need that extra support unit, and the office has definitely been that for me,” says Davis.

Oakes notes that other offices and schools across the nation that are struggling to recruit and retain minority students should commit to identifying and addressing at-risk students, capitalizing on partnership opportunities and conducting an internal assessment of institutional trends.

“If you want to increase retention, you’ve got to get metric minded and figure out who’s leaving and why,” she says. “We have to challenge our universities to take more ownership of the success of their students, and we have to really take the time to get to know our students and demonstrate a stronger interest in the personal success of each student.”

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