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Enhancing Identity Development for Black Students at PWIs

Brittini R. BrownBrittini R. Brown

“The end of education is to know God and the laws and purposes of His universe and to reconcile one’s life with these laws. The first aim of a good college is not to teach books, but the meaning and purpose of life. Hard study and the learning of books are only a means to this end. We develop power and courage and determination and we go out to achieve Trust, Wisdom, and Justice. If we do not come to this, the cost of schooling is wasted.”

As a freshman at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, we were required to learn the “Philosophy of Education,” made popular by our first president, John Brown Watson. Each week, I recited it loudly and proudly and hoped one day to gain clarity on exactly what it all meant. Well, nine years post graduation, I think my alma mater would be proud; I finally understand.

It seems that President Watson knew then what so many higher education leaders struggle to understand almost 100 years later. That is, college is not only an institution where students go to gain academic knowledge, but, most importantly, college is an experience designed to help students gain a sense of self, a sense of comfort for whom they are, a sense of pride for where they come from, a sense of responsibility to the world around them, and a sense of direction for where they will go and whom they will ultimately become.

While Minority Serving Institutions—namely, historically Black colleges and universities—have been noted for their ability to contribute to the success of Black students, predominantly White institutions have struggled. Particularly, PWIs have struggled in their ability to foster environments where Black students can successfully develop their identity.

Defined as how an individual comes to define and make meaning of oneself, identity is not only a complex construct that is influenced by factors like gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but identity also plays a critical role in how college students develop and negotiate subsequent social and academic identities.  For example, researchers have found that some Black students feel the need to become “raceless” in the classroom to achieve academic success.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated that a key reason that students of color who demonstrate success in the sciences but eventually depart is due to the dissonance they experience between their emerging science identity and their enduring cultural sense of whom they are and want to become. This is especially concerning because, although HBCUs enroll approximately 9 percent of all undergraduate Blacks in higher education and award more than 20 percent of baccalaureate degrees to Blacks in the U.S., the larger percentage of Black students are attending and graduating from PWIs. Hence, the larger percentage of Black students is attending universities that have struggled historically to provide environments where Black students can successfully develop their identity.

This begs the question, “How are Black students who attend PWIs successfully developing their identity?” Moreover, “Are they leaving PWIs sure of their disciplinary knowledge as demonstrated by their degree, but unsure of the “meaning and purpose of life” as emphasized by President Watson in his “Philosophy of Education”?

The applicability of widely accepted student development theories, like Chickering’s Theory of Identity Development, has been questioned due to their inability to adequately characterize minority populations. However, I believe that these theories do provide some insight into campus environmental factors that influence the identity development of all students such as curriculum, student-faculty relationships, friendships and student communities, and student development programs and services. In fact, some of these factors have even been underscored by research specifically aimed at Black student success.

Unfortunately, however, for many Black students attending PWIs, many of these factors are either non-existent or difficult to attain at the very least. University leaders who are dedicated not only to the intellectual development of Black students but also committed to creating environments that foster identity development for Black students at PWIs should consider the following practices:

  1. Increase the presence of Black faculty members, hence, increasing the opportunity for Black students to build relationships and engage with professors and potential mentors who share a similar racial/ethnic background. Further, the presence of Black faculty has been found to increase science identity development for students in the STEM disciplines.
  2. Increase the enrollment of Black students to reflect, at the very least, the percentage of Blacks in the U.S. population. This not only increases the opportunity for students to build peer relationships with students who may share a similar cultural background, but also provides an experience that may be comparable to what Black students will experience in the workforce.
  3. Highlight and emphasize topics, issues, and individuals within the curriculum that are culturally relevant to Black students in all disciplines spanning from humanities to STEM. This will enable Black students to make stronger connections between who they are racially/ethnically and the academic discipline and career they are pursuing.
  4. Partner with HBCUs and provide opportunities for Black PWI students to engage in culturally relevant activities and opportunities that may not be available on PWI campuses.
  5. Equitably support Black Cultural Centers, programs, and initiatives designed to increase leadership opportunities, enhance sense of belonging, and promote student engagement among the Black student population.

These are only a few of many strategies that can be utilized to can enhance identity development among Black students at PWIs. Regardless of the strategy, however, the most important take-away is that PWIs must begin to take seriously the education of the Black students on their campuses beyond lip service, and fostering an environment where Black students can successfully develop their identity is one of many ways to do so. It is important to note that not all Black students who attend PWIs struggle to develop their identity, however; in a society where education seems to be the most effective weapon against social, political, and economic oppression, we cannot afford for a single Black student to graduate from a university empowered with academic knowledge but unsure of how and where to use it.

Brittini R. Brown is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Strategic Planning, Partnership, and Development for Mentoring@Purdue, an initiative aimed at enhancing mentoring relationships between faculty, and women and underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM-based agricultural and life science graduate degrees in the Purdue University, College of Agriculture. 

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