When Giving Advice to African American College Students

by Lillian Williams

Following Donald Trump’s election as president, the number of racially-motivated incidents of hate on college campuses has climbed. A quick glance at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website shows that 40 percent of incidents catalogued there recently occurred in the K-12 through college and university bracket. The “Campus Racial Incidents” section of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education also documented several incidents that occurred on college campuses.

Clearly, besides decisions on which schools to attend, students of color entering college next year might have questions about how to stay focused on their goals. What steps should they take to persist through to graduation? What social experiences might assist in attaining their goals?

Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania, a leading educational researcher, created the “anti-deficit achievement framework” to study persistence issues among students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. His framework emphasizes factors that influence achievement, rather than deficits. In other words, instead of cataloguing barriers to success, Harper’s model looks for contributors to success.

Last year, adapting Harper’s framework, I interviewed 12 successful graduates of the journalism program at Columbia College Chicago. Specifically, I explored factors these graduates believe led to their success at Columbia, a private college specializing in arts and media disciplines.

Among the interviewees were eight African-Americans and four Hispanics, 10 females and two males. Each had graduated within the past 10 years. Five were employed in TV news; two in public relations; two as freelancers; one as a web producer, and one as a magazine editor. Themes that emerged from their interviews contained valuable advice for incoming students.

Here’s some advice from Columbia College Chicago graduates in several key areas:

Student/Faculty Interaction: As widely affirmed in literature, these graduates found that interactions with faculty helped them to persist through to graduation. These interactions with faculty – both formal and informal – boosted confidence levels; led to mentorships, and sparked connections to internships. Years later they recalled these meaningful interactions.

One graduate said: “During my senior year, I did a story on the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympic games. When the professor saw my piece she said it was good enough to be aired on NBC5. I knew then I was good enough to do what I am doing now.”

Another graduate said: “Faculty members…definitely instilled in us that we could, and we would, go out into the journalism world and conquer it.”

Internships: Students should meet their internship/career advisers as quickly as possible, the graduates advised. Internships offer the opportunity to clarify and sharpen career interests; make professional connections, and expand upon competencies gained in the classroom.

Commenting on the value of internships, one graduate said: “There I was able to mingle with professionals already in the industry. All of that motivated me to pursue a career in journalism. I was excited about the type of life I could have becoming a news reporter.”

Another noted the skill-building advantages: “Internships at the news station really forced me to fact check and make sure that all of my ducks were in a row to avoid inaccuracies.”

Student Organizations: Students should get involved in campus-based organizations as a way to network and to build leadership skills, the graduates advised. Right from the start, students should seek to attend meetings of student-run organizations in their disciplines, and/or college-wide organizations.

Here’s how one graduate put it: “Being a part of a student-organization was a great networking tool. It gave me an opportunity to meet new people, be a part of creating exciting events and programs on campus and build my communication and planning skills. As a member of a student organization it also connected me to other power-players on campus-both adults and students. Being a student-leader on campus held me accountable, helped me master time management and allowed me to find my voice. The experiences prepared me well for becoming a leader in the newsroom; someone who sets a positive tone and leads by example.”

In an exploration of factors leading to their persistence through to graduation and successful transition to the work world, these successful graduates pointed to three key factors: significant relationships with faculty, internships, and involvement in student organizations. In implications, incoming and current students should immediately get to know faculty in their disciplines, as well as participate in student organizations. They should connect with college internship coordinators, as early as possible, to understand college guidelines for experiential education. Lastly, though interviewees did not mention them by name, academic advisers serve as a key bridge between various college programs and disciplines. Therefore, students should connect frequently with academic advisers for information about campus bridge programs that prepare students for college, and tutoring and peer mentorship programs.

lillian-williams-plusLillian Williams is an associate professor in the communication and media innovation department at Columbia College Chicago. She formerly worked as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper and WKYC-TV in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Williams holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and a Ph.D. in higher education from Loyola University in Chicago.

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  1. Dear Dr. Williams, I found your article filled with tips and inside information that students, counselors and parents will find useful. Thanks for this valuable information. I will share it.

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