How One College is Supporting its ‘Small Population’ of African American/Black Students

by Joseph Alonzo – Director of the Office of Student Equity & Success, Santiago Canyon College / Sep 18, 2019

Our institution was recently identified as an Umoja-affiliated community college. The Umoja community in California is a state program comprised of “a community of educators and learners committed to the academic success, personal growth and self-actualization of African American and other students” (Umoja Community, 2019). Over the next year, we will receive training, resources, and funding to better support African American/Black students at our college, with the option to continue if we meet the mandates of the program. This is an important step in the right direction, but like many colleges, we still need to provide more information about the needs of these students in order to have broader institutional buy-in.

My involvement in getting the college to this point began in April of 2015, when I was hired as the director of student equity. In 2014, the California Legislature provided funding for colleges to implement equity plans and reduce equity gaps for identified students. In one of my first meetings with my supervisor, the vice president of student services, we discussed a need to support young men of color. He mentioned there were a number of colleges that had conferences or summits, and he was interested in doing something similar.

As I began investigating the disproportionate impact for young men of color, I saw that our college was less successful in supporting them. I also discovered that African American/Black students in particular were even more disproportionately impacted than other students, and across multiple areas. When I cross-referenced these findings with what we were actually doing to support these students, it unfortunately did not align.

For example, in our equity plan, we created activities, services, and programs for many student groups—Asians, Latinx, foster youth, low-income students, veterans, students with identified disabilities—but nothing that focused specifically on the success of African American/Black students. This was around the same time that the state sent a Readiness Assessment to all colleges as part of the process of applying to become  an Umoja-affiliated campus. Our college developed an Umoja Advisory Group to reflect on the college’s readiness to support these students. The conversation was fruitful, and many voices provided input.

One conversation that stood out was when a white-identified person said he did not see color, and that having a program for only African American/Black students would make them feel segregated, doing more harm than good. On a different occasion, this person said, “They’re such a small population. Why would we direct funding to such a small group of students?” While I believe the answer to this question is in the question itself, I responded appropriately but will break it down more formally here:

  • We found equity gaps across time and across metrics, so it is obvious that our college needs to do a better job serving this “small population” of students.
  • The argument to not support students because they are a small group is flawed as well. We have a small population of veterans at our college, but there is limited resistance (if any) to providing them with resources including a space, two and a half employees, computers, books, food, and counseling.
  • Our college is a Hispanic-serving institution, so many of the support programs and services are (intentionally or not) directed toward Latinx students. In these programs, many of the staff and faculty also identify as Latinx, so African American/Black students are less likely to feel connected to these programs. We have found they are underrepresented in many of these programs as well.
  • The assumption that African American/Black students would feel segregated does not align with the input students gave us in focus groups (which I discuss below), and I believe the narrative stems from the historical stigma placed on providing support to those in need.

Furthermore, in preparation for the assessment, our college facilitated a focus group with African American/Black students to get a better understanding of what they were experiencing, and how we could better support them. We did not want to simply rely on anecdotes from the advisory group to inform the program—we wanted to hear it directly from the students. Many of the responses were eye-opening and spoke to the need for additional support from the campus to ensure these students’ retention and success. Students reported:

  • Feeling isolated or alone
  • Many times being the only African American/Black student in a class
  • Having to speak on behalf of all African American/Black people
  • Not knowing how to connect with other African American/Black students
  • Dealing with microaggressions
  • Changing the way they speak or dress so they are not stereotyped
  • Not wanting to work in groups because of negative interactions with non-Black students
  • Not wanting to ask for help for fear of being stereotyped

In designing a program, students also provided insights into what would work for them. Responses included:

  • Needing a space or a “home” on campus
  • Needing a place to “turn it off”
  • Wanting support from a team of people who are authentic and who care
  • Workshops on a variety of topics including financial planning and how to be academically successful
  • Making the program about Black excellence and destroying stereotypes
  • Providing basic needs such as books

Therefore, based on the data and input from students, we know there are multiple opportunities to grow and remove barriers for African American/Black students at our college. We need to move away from false narratives and bust myths about these students, as well as place the agency on our college to do a better job of supporting them. Someone once told me that if you want to see what a college’s priorities are, look at its budget. I do believe the work we have done thus far has put us on track to make improvements. I also believe that our campus, generally speaking, does support this effort. We have become an affiliated campus, we have identified a space, and in meetings people are supportive. We need to take that verbal support and turn it into action, services, resources, and institutional change. We cannot rely solely on Umoja funds to support these students and simultaneously say we are doing our best to serve them. Until we gain institutional buy-in (which includes redirecting funds, personnel, and space), and make supporting African American/Black students a priority in decision-making, I believe we will see the same results we have seen in the past. I understand this is difficult with so many competing obligations, and with limited funding, but I believe our college will make it happen.


Joseph Alonzo is an Engaging Excellence in Equity Fellow who has participated in convenings designed to identify culturally responsive practices and further support-building evidence and capacity for this work. Learn more about this project.