Black Student Engagement: Resilience & Success Under Duress.

Author:McDougal, Serie


Positive social and psychological college environments have an influence on students' educational passion and the efforts they put forth (Chen, Ingram, & Davis, 2014; Harper, Carini, Bridges, & Hayek, 2004). What leads to student engagement may be common for many students, yet it is also likely to differ due to many factors, among them race and ethnicity. Student demographics at higher-education institutions across the United States are shifting in ways that will place new demands on universities to be culturally responsive. Much of the current research on Black student engagement consists of large samples where Black students are underrepresented while others involve comparisons between predominantly Black institutions or predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Black students are attending schools that are demographically diverse; neither predominantly Black nor predominantly White, yet Black student engagement at these schools has seldom been investigated in-depth. Some of these campuses are demographically diverse, yet Black students remain underrepresented. Due to the failure to explore the experiences of Black students on these campuses, potential key factors to stimulate Black student engagement can remain unidentified. Additionally, considering the fact that Black students face unique challenges on such campuses, failure to conduct research on Black student experiences on these campuses may allow Black students to be systematically under-supported and disengaged, behind a veil of diversity.

Literature Review

The following review of the literature surveys the currently available research on the factors that influence Black student engagement. Several studies investigating differences between the engagement of Black students based on institutional types are described. The impact of racism on Black student success is summarized. Lastly, Black students' methods of social, psychological, and cultural resistance and resilience are described.

Black Student Engagement

Student engagement is the level of passion and interest students show in their learning experiences. According to Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea (2008), student engagement is "both the time and energy students invest in educationally purposeful activities and the effort institutions devote to using effective educational practices" (p.542). From this perspective, student engagement includes what institutions can do; such as adjusting teaching practices, developing programs like first-year seminars, service-learning courses, and learning communities (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008). Ultimately, student engagement includes a component which focuses on the energy students put into their educational experiences, while the other includes the resources and efforts that institutions put into creating an environment that promotes student involvement (Chen, Ingram, & Davis, 2014).

According to Shappie & Debb (2017), student engagement is a multidimensional construct which includes three main components: behavioral (academic and social or extracurricular involvement), affective (affective reactions to teachers, peers, and the school), and cognitive (investment and mental effort). According to Harper, Carini, Bridges, and Hayek (2004), active student engagement positively affects cognitive and intellectual skill development, moral and ethical development, psychosocial development, and positive images of self. Research has found that African American students benefit more from educationally purposeful activities including, but not limited to studying, doing the reading for class, asking questions, meeting with professors to discuss grades, and working with other students on projects (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008; Shappie & Debb, 2017). Some argue that student engagement has this differential effect, in part, because it compensates for the lower abilities of students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008). Based on this logic, institutions should channel students who are from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and low-income families, educationally unprepared, and/or first-generation college students into educationally effective activities to educationally effective activities (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008; Shappie & Debb, 2017). However, these perspectives ignore the role that racist anti-Black cultural climates play in influencing Black student levels of engagement.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have proven to provide generally positive social and psychological environments that foster enhanced student engagement for Black college students, despite the fact that they are generally financially poorer than PWIs (Chen, Ingram, & Davis, 2014; Harper, Carini, Bridges, & Hayek, 2004). Compared to PWI's, at HBCUs Black students typically report higher levels of self-concept, self-efficacy, and achievement orientation (Harper, Carini, Bridges, & Hayek, 2004). According to Harper, Carini, Bridges, and Hayek (2004), at HBCU's, Black students "devote more effort to academic activities; experience more significant gains in intellectual development, critical thinking, and cultural awareness; and enjoy greater personal and social benefits than African Americans at PWIs" (p. 272). Unlike other universities, HBCUs create campus climates which are instructionally inclusive, and sensitive to Black students' cultures of origin and their needs and priorities (Shappie & Debb, 2017). One seldom acknowledged factor, which Shappie & Debb (2017) point out, is the positive impact that HBCUs' common mission of racial-uplift has on Black student engagement.

Predominantly White Campuses

Research continuously demonstrates differences in Black student engagement at PWIs and HBCUs. At PWIs, Black students must endure challenges such as feeling isolated, marginalized, and excluded in their attempts to adjust to campus environments (Patton, Bridges, & Flowers, 2011). Such challenges are primarily due to racist climates, low teacher expectations, being expected to represent all members of their racial/ethnic group, being excluded from study groups, and other racial microaggressions (Patton, Bridges, & Flowers, 2011).

Black students' experiences with racism on college campuses in the form of microaggression, cultural isolation, and avoidance have physiological, psychological, and behavioral consequences, which in-turn can have academic consequences. Moreover, racism is seldom isolated and can be found at many sites within universities, from classrooms and administrative offices to residential housing.

Black Student Resistance and Resilience

On the campuses of colleges and universities across the country, many Black students find social and academic support in Africana Studies departments and programs. In unique ways, Africana Studies' pedagogical approaches have been found to provide students with social support, racial socialization, cultural pride, and culturally responsive departmental activities and services, and knowledge of their intellectual heritage in various subject areas (Adams, 2014; Carey & Allen, 1977). These pedagogical approaches in Africana Studies are associated with positive racial identity development, increased self-esteem, increased self-efficacy, and increased likelihood of graduating (Marie, 2016). Black students often find support by creating and joining communities and networks such as African/Black Student Unions (BSUs), Black Culture/Student Centers, Black residence communities, and Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs), which have played instrumental roles in Black campus life for over one hundred years. These organizations have generally had positive influences on Black student success and engagement (Patton, Bridges, & Flowers, 2011). More specifically, such unions have bolstered Black students' academic success and satisfaction (Patton, Bridges, & Flowers, 2011).

When Black students come together in ways that support their academic, social, and psychological resilience it is sometimes called racial cohesion. Racial cohesion is related to students' levels of engagement and their involvement in culture-based organizations. Black racial cohesion refers to a sense of having a stake in the success of other Black people, while racial dissonance is having a sense of ambivalence or disdain towards one's racial/ethnic group (Bentley-Edwards, Chapman-Hilliard, & Worthington, 2015). Bentley-Edwards, Chapman-Hilliard, and Worthington (2015) investigated racial cohesion among 242 Black students at HBCUs and PWI using questionnaires. The authors found that racial cohesion and racial agency at both PWIs and HBCUs was positively related to participation in extracurricular activities and academically oriented activities. Students with more everyday access to other Black people in their youth were more likely to show high levels of racial cohesion in the form of connectedness and interest in the Black community. Experiences with racism and race-related stress were also positively related to racial cohesion. Racial cohesion was positively related to involvement in cultural affinity-based organizations, as those with greater racial cohesion were more likely to be involved in cultural affinity-based organizations. They also found that racial agency was highest at HBCUs. The authors theorized that Black students receive emotional validation and protection from cultural affinity-based organizations, which are especially necessary at PWIs.

The current body of available literature on Black student engagement supports the notion that college environments that are culturally responsive, welcoming, challenging, and egalitarian are positively related to Black student engagement and achievement. Some of the areas in the current body of literature on Black student engagement remain under-investigated. There are institutions where the majority of the...

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