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Program Aims to Increase Number of Minority College Graduates

September 28, 2010 at 6:13 PM EDT
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Special correspondent John Tulenko examines some of the challenges minorities face in college and a program that concentrates on helping them complete a degree.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: trying to raise graduation rates for students of color on college campuses. The Obama administration is convening a summit next month to try to find fresh approaches to that concern.

We have a report on a program that’s getting some good results now. Special correspondent John Tulenko reports for Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

JOHN TULENKO, Learning Matters: This fall, about a million-and-a-half students started out at four-year colleges and universities. Unfortunately if patterns hold, six years from now, only about half will have graduated.

It’s much worse for black and Latino students. Only 40 percent graduate. But some colleges do better. This is one of them, the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A diverse school with 16,000 undergrads, Stony Brook graduates 65 percent of its Latino students and 70 percent of its black students, more than almost any other public university in the country.

Key to its success is a special program that helps some 600 low-income, mostly minority students make it to graduation. It’s called EOP, for Educational Opportunity Program. Cheryl Hamilton is the director.

CHERYL HAMILTON, EOP Director, State University of New York at Stony Brook: Students who come through the program are students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to go to college. Many of our students are not just first-generation college students, but we have many students who are first-generation Americans.

JOHN TULENKO: Like 23-year-old Jose Gibson. Born in Guyana, he moved to the United States at age 10.

JOSE GIBSON, College Student: We just came over to the United States. We just wanted to survive. My mom had to find a job. My dad had to find a job. And we also had to find our own apartment.

JOHN TULENKO: His family settled in Upstate New York. His father worked as a security guard. His mother cleaned in a hospital. And Jose went to public high school.

Was college part of your thinking then?

JOSE GIBSON: College wasn’t a big — it wasn’t in the plan at first. I didn’t see it happening. I didn’t think I was going to make it this far.

CHERYL HAMILTON: Many of our students come from communities where they’re not seeing a lot of people coming out of those communities who are professionals. They don’t have folks in their corner saying, this is what you need to do, or, oh, how exciting that you’re studying engineering. Maybe you can come and work for my firm during the summer, so you can get some hands-on experience. Our students are not getting that.

JOHN TULENKO: So, to get these students to graduation, Stony Brook uses a three-part approach.

Part one begins the summer before freshman year, when 125 students, many needing to catch up academically, arrive on campus for five weeks of college boot camp.

JOSE GIBSON: Boot camp. It was — shocked. It had pretty strict guidelines. One thing that struck everyone’s attention as soon as we got there was, they took away all our cell phones. There was no cell phones. And people cried, and: Oh, I have got to call my mom. I have got to do this. So, that was big.

JOHN TULENKO: Students are in classes all day and at their desks until well into the night.

JOSE GIBSON: Mandatory study hours, that was new to a lot of people, 7:00 to 11:00, that you had to study. We would have a pair of our tutors patrolling the hallways, making sure that you were at your desk. In that four hours, you could not be sleeping, sitting, or even conversating.

WOMAN: Study hours will start promptly at 7:15.

JOHN TULENKO: It really does feel like a boot camp.

CHERYL HAMILTON: Well, I think, if we just leave the students on their own to study when they feel like studying and leave them with their cell phones, I suspect that probably not a lot of work would get done.

We have a group of students who don’t even think it’s possible for them to sit at a desk for four hours. And so just helping them to understand that they can, helping them to realize that it is possible — it’s not easy.

The interesting thing is, once the academic year starts, and there’s no longer a curfew, and they’re allowed to have their cell phones, and, you know, the rules are so much more relaxed, students are still giving themselves those four hours of mandatory study per night. And the students who do that are our students who are most successful.

JOHN TULENKO: If students do fall behind, they get free tutoring. And those in more serious academic trouble take a mandatory six-week-long study skills workshop. That’s part two.

CHERYL HAMILTON: We have all of our students — any student who we identify as being at-risk sits down with their assigned academic adviser and develops what we call an academic success contract. So, the counselor and the student would come up with, well, this is what we think this student needs to do in order to bring their grade-point average from here to here.

JOHN TULENKO: But, sometimes, even that’s not enough. So next comes the heart of the program, part three.

DOROTHY CORBETT, EOP counselor, State University of New York at Stony Brook: You can talk to me. Tell me what — your needs. Tell me if you’re homesick. Tell me if you think you need more time on the phone, whatever it is that you think you need.

We concentrate on the person, the whole person. We make them think, no, what are you like? You told me this about your mom. You told me this about your brothers and sisters. You told me this about your upbringing. No, let’s really look at your person and find out what is going to make you happy and successful as an adult.

JOHN TULENKO: Every student in EOP has a counselor like Dorothy Corbett. And they’re required to meet that person four times a semester.

A student Dorothy came to know very well was Yahira Montano. In the spring of her first year, Yahira had a crisis.

DOROTHY CORBETT: I think I saw her in the hallway crying, if I remember correctly. And I pulled her into my office and said, what’s going on?

YAHIRA MONTANO, college student: My mom used to, I guess, battle with alcoholism. And, obviously, when you battle with alcoholism, you have the denial stages. And the person becomes a different person. And I went back home, and the door was locked.

DOROTHY CORBETT: She — she was distraught. And she said she didn’t know what she was going to do. She told me her mother had kicked her out.

YAHIRA MONTANO: The next thing you know, I’m crying. I’m like crying in the office and so…

DOROTHY CORBETT: So, I started letting her know, OK, you need to calm down. I’m going to help you. It might not be today. But before this summer comes, you will have a place to stay.

JOHN TULENKO: And she did. That summer, Yahira lived on campus, and, afterwards, stayed there year-round.

DOROTHY CORBETT: Some of these kids have lives that are so complicated, that they need a lot more. And that’s what we do. The way we are in this apartment, we’re going to find a way to help you.

MAN: Please rise.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN TULENKO: It worked for Yahira. She graduated this spring. But many other students here still need a lift. Stony Brook’s overall graduation rate averages to around 60 percent.

These special services, why don’t you do this for all your undergrads?

DR. SAMUEL STANLEY, president, State University of New York at Stony Brook: I would love for everyone to get it. But the challenge is, we don’t have the resources to do it.

JOHN TULENKO: Instead of expanding EOP, Stony Brook’s president, Dr. Samuel Stanley, is looking for ways to save it. Since 2008 New York State has cut funding for the program by 17 percent.

DR. SAMUEL STANLEY: I work very hard to defend EOP. It should be part of our core mission, to fulfill this concept of the American dream. And if we don’t have these kinds of examples, where people have been successful, then I think you’re caught, essentially.

And so communities can be caught in a cycle where no one has succeeded or there’s been very little success. So, I think it becomes incredibly important that we provide these kinds of success stories, because I think other people build on them.

JOHN TULENKO: That’s the hope for graduates like Jose Gibson. He plans on becoming a nurse. And Yahira Montano started graduate school in social work this fall.