The University Record, May 24, 1993

21st Century program integrates students’ academic, social lives

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Many minority college students fare poorly academically not because they are ill-prepared or lack proper skills, but because they feel “disconnected” socially from their school. Educators can help those students by focusing less on skill remediation and more on making them feel a part of the academic and social climate on campus.

That was among the messages delivered to the Regents at their May 6 meeting during a series of presentations given by students and faculty involved in programs designed to promote the academic success of minority students.

Psychology Prof. Claude M. Steele, in a videotaped presentation, said that African American students in particular “disidentify” with school and, unlike many white students, do not base self-esteem on academic success.

“Among students in this particular ethnic group more than any other there is a marked separation between their personal lives and their academic lives,” he said. “School is one thing, life is another.”

One effort to integrate the academic and social spheres of student life is the 21st Century program, which involves more than 250 undergraduates who live together in one wing at Mary Markley Residence Hall. These students, about 30 percent minority, attend weekly seminars and workshops where they discuss problems, share personal experiences and challenge each other academically.

“The social climate continues to perpetuate stereotypes and racism,” said David Schoem, assistant dean for undergraduate education. “Our focus at 21st Century is to create a different climate. In doing this, we hope African American students and other students of color will feel comfortable identifying with the program and with the University of Michigan.”

Schoem said that although the national attrition rate for minority students is high, the goals of the 21st Century program go beyond the issue of simple retention.

“We want students in this program and generally to graduate with competitive grades and accomplishments,” he said. “Much of the emphasis is on challenging the students. It’s about academic success.”

First-year student Renee L. Fussello, a biology major, said the program’s relaxed, intimate atmosphere encourages students to discuss personal and academic issues, providing support for those who may feel lost at a large university.

“No matter what went on during the week, I knew that I would be able to come to the seminar on Sunday and talk about my problems, my fears, my goals and what I wanted to achieve here,” she said. “Needless to say, the 21st Century program had a profound effect on my first year.”

Other programs presented to Regents by faculty and students included a School of Social Work poverty research training program for pre-doctoral and post-doctoral minority students and a community service project focusing on the emotional development of minority children in Detroit schools.