The Pan-African studies effect and its impact on undergraduate students.

Author:Adams, Tomarra A.


Black Studies programs have decreased since their introduction in the late 1960s and 1970s (Bobo, Hudley, & Michel, 2004; Rojas, 2007). Some programs have been merged with others addressing issues of diversity, dissolved, or diminished to minors or varied course offerings. Although there is much discussion nationally on the infusion of diversity content throughout the curriculum and persistent questions regarding the legitimacy of departments like the University of Louisville's (UofL) Department of Pan-African Studies (PAS), the reality is that Black Studies programs and diversity programs are not the same--and the Black experience, which is central to Black Studies, is all-too-often marginal, if not invisible, in many diversity programs.

However, UofL's PAS has flourished since it was introduced in 1973. A department that began as a program with only two joint appointed faculty has grown into one with 15 full-time tenure-track positions that offers the only undergraduate degree in Black Studies throughout the state of Kentucky as well as postgraduate degree programs. Beyond the department's degree-granting capacity, PAS educates a large segment of students from the general student population through general education, cross-listed, supporting, and elective courses with an average of 1,900 students enrolled and 55,702 credit hours produced in PAS courses between 2006-2013 (Office of Institutional Research, 2013). PAS has achieved a "critical mass" programmatically, and generated sufficient quantitative and qualitative data over time to support a comparative analysis of the impact the department has on the performance, retention, and graduation rates of undergraduate students (Adams, 2009).

A series of studies at UofL chronicled the experiences and successes of undergraduate students who enrolled in PAS classes and PAS's graduating seniors (Adams, 2005; Adams, 2009; Adams, 2012). These studies found a significant impact on how students engage their overall academic experience after their exposure to the PAS curriculum and faculty. This academic and interpersonal experience has served to increase self-efficacy and academic resiliency on a predominantly White campus (PWC). The exposure to PAS's liberatory education is instrumental in positive racial socialization and developing social consciousness by increasing identity awareness and creating space for students to think critically throughout their educational encounters. Students learn resiliency, or an ability to recover from adversity, through PAS that ultimately influences their academic success (Hanley & Noblit, 2009). Therefore, this piece examines academic resiliency of undergraduate students using a series of studies on PAS's student engagement, liberatory curriculum, and racial identity development.

The Culture of PWCs

Hanley and Noblit (2009) stated educators and institutions of education worked with a sense of assimilation logic, or the thought that once Blacks and other students of color were integrated into predominantly White schools systems, their academic success would follow. However, this logic was flawed. Black students are susceptible to marginalization or covert discrimination. In the current system, Black students must learn how to handle cultural biases and bridge aspects of Black culture with the majority culture, or what DuBois described as the maintenance of a double-consciousness in order to thrive (Cropper, 2000; Sedlacek, 1987). When racial identities are at odds, or an institution does not provide Black students the cultural environment that supports their participation in campus activities, there is a greater likelihood students will become marginalized and lost to attrition (Davis, 1991; Sedlacek, 1987). So, while the country debates whether or not it is a post-racial society, Black students witness the dismantling of Black Studies programs across the country and attacks on affirmative action (e.g. Proposition 209) that prompted the immediate and drastic decline in Black college student enrollment in some states (Briscoe, 2008), and the continuation of a traditional curriculum without systemic inclusion of the contributions and experiences of Blacks in the U.S.

There is an argument that legal segregation is non-existent in contemporary society, which work to diminish the need for discussions of race and racial climate at PWCs as well as the existence of Black Studies, but contemporary issues instigated by color-blindness and meritocracy remain a barrier for systemic change that support an inclusive environment (Delgado, 1995 ; Guinier & Torres, 2002; Briscoe, 2008). Therefore, an examination of climate and culture is imperative when assessing the need for Black Studies at PWCs.

The disparity in enrollment and graduation among Black and White students illustrates this point. The National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reported that from 1976 to 2010, Black student enrollment increased from nine to 14% among American college students - five percent over 34 years. At UofL, Black student enrollment has slightly declined from 2008 to 2011 from 12.2% to 11.5% of the overall student population (Institutional Research, 2013) (1). Black students at UofL tend to have a slightly higher first-year retention rate than their White counterparts at an average of 78.5% and 76.4% respectively from 2000-2011. Yet, the gap between Black and White students' six-year graduation rate is far more significant at an average 40.1% and 48% respectively between 2006-2012. What created the gap between Black and White student degree completions? Across the literature, reasons differ on why Black students are more likely to dropout of college than their White counterparts, and include common issues such as finances, academic under-performance, feelings of alienation, and/or discrimination (Fischer, 2007). The increase in Black student enrollment in PWCs in recent decades presented a new challenge for Black students as the climate of these institutions was not always friendly and their programs were not always culturally sensitive.

The expectations and ways in which students engage campus resources remain a vital component of their success. Black students expect campus values and norms to be more liberal, but when this is not their experience, the university environment seems confusing and hostile (Gibbs, 1973). Students are not always able to articulate feelings of alienation or marginalization by faculty or their peers, they simply state they are not connected to the campus or the community. Although there are continued debates on how much racial identification impacts students' expectations and academic performances, and contrary to Smith's (1991) premise that racial identification was unrelated to Black students' academic performance due to the influences of historical events (Smith & Moore, 1983), students continue to experience covert forms of racism. Students who receive positive feedback about themselves from peers, faculty, staff, and administrators and are involved on campus tend to succeed at the college level (Davis, 1991). In fact, Adams (2005) reported the importance students placed on their academic success had a significant relationship to their feeling socially successful, fighting racism, and having interaction with students of the same race, all of which contributes to student persistence. Racial identification provides both the intellectual tools and insulation needed to survive within PWCs and build resiliency.

Fostering Resilience through PAS

Increasingly, more research has been devoted to understanding and reinforcing the resiliency of people to overcome adversity through positive psychology. There is debate in the literature on whether people are born with or are socialized to have resilient characteristics (e.g. strengths, skills, resources, supports, or coping strategies) known as protective factors. In attempting to predict these characteristics, Richardson (2002) described three waves of resiliency as (a) resilient qualities - descriptions of individual qualities, e.g. self-esteem and support systems, that predict social and personal success, (b) resiliency process -...

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