By Kayla Williamson
Around one-third of African American students who start college at Trevecca end up graduating from the university, compared to 57 percent of white students.
According to an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) report signed by President Dan Boone, African Americans have the lowest graduation rates compared to other races. Graduation rates are the percentage of students that finish their degree within six years.
The most recent graduation rates for African American undergraduate students are 32 percent. Asian students have a graduation rate of 33 percent, and white students have a graduation rate of 57 percent. Overall, Trevecca has a graduation rate of 54 percent.
Since graduation rates are tracked over the course of six years, the most recent numbers are from fall 2011 to spring 2017. According to the TNU FactBook, there were 68 undergraduate African American students in fall 2011. Of those 68 students, 22 of them finished their degree.
Graduation rates are not just an issue at Trevecca. According to the National Public Clearinghouse Research Center, African Americans have the lowest graduation rates Nationwide. Only 37.1 percent of the students who began their studies in 2012 finished their degree. However, African Americans also had the highest number of students who were still working towards their degree, with a percentage of 16.2.
Brodrick Thomas, director of community engagement and reconciliation, said the staff in the Bud Robinson building is following the numbers and are dedicated to retaining and graduating students.
“Whenever you see retention rates and you ask what Trevecca is doing for it,” Thomas said. “Every single person in this [Bud Robinson] building is working towards that effort.”
Thomas said most colleges haven’t been focused on retention, putting more attention on recruitment. He said that’s one thing that makes Trevecca different from other universities.
“I think Trevecca really now understands that whenever we take a student in, we have a promise to uphold which is to get them through,” Thomas said. “Our mission isn’t completed until we put a student out into the work field to do incredible things and bring a Christian presence into whatever environment they choose to go into.”
Qunisha McKee, graduate student and counseling intern, wasn’t surprised by the graduation rates.
“I think it’s a representation of students not feeling welcome, or not feeling like they belong here,” McKee said.
Mckee led a group called Minorities in White Spaces in Fall 2018.
“The main reason we put it together was because we wanted to give students of color a place of belonging,” McKee said. “I don’t think they really have that here.”
McKee finished her undergraduate studies at Tennessee State University, an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) not far from Trevecca.
For students of color unhappy in their circumstances, McKee said don’t let it create “self-doubt,” and to reach out to the counseling center if they need help.
“A lot of times, for people of color it’s very hard to say that they need help,” McKee said. “It’s okay to need help. It’s okay for you to come in and connect and have an unbiased ear to things.”
Some students take comfort in Trevecca’s willingness to have difficult conversations in classrooms but aren’t sure that some professors take diversity into consideration.
“I like the fact that my professors encourage discussions, but I think a lot of discussions that are happening in classrooms are not keeping demographics in mind,” said Erykah Lewis, a sophomore and social justice major. “In class we kind of generalize things, forgetting that we are a diverse country, and also forgetting that we, right in the heart of Nashville, are a diverse community.”
Students of color are also subject to insensitive comments from peers. Lewis recalls being told that she was “pretty for a black girl,” and that she was “smart for a black girl.” Comments like that are harmful and divisive, but some people may be unaware of the negative effects, she said.
Lewis knows of one student who is planning to transfer because of “issues in the community.”
“People have said things to her, she feels left out. She felt like she didn’t have a chance because people see her differently,” Lewis said.
The toll that isolation can have on students of color may not obvious to those around them. But those close enough can see the difference, and the heaviness that loneliness can have.
“You see this drive in them,” Lewis said. “But you also see them getting extremely tired. It’s hard putting up a fight in a place where you are few in numbers.”
For some students of color, race is not the biggest issue at Trevecca.
“My Trevecca experience has honestly been great,” said Nathan Clermont, an undecided major and freshman. “I’m surrounded by a whole bunch of great people.”
Despite feeling welcome, Clermont is not sure about his future at Trevecca for financial reasons.
“I’m doing Iwork, and some of my money goes to tuition, and my parents cover the rest,” Clermont said. “I realize that colleges are becoming more expensive, and we have a whole bunch of Africans Americans from predominantly poor neighborhoods.”
Clermont said that for some people of color, college is a once in a lifetime opportunity, while for others, it’s a regular thing. Because of the economic differences on campus, he also wasn’t surprised to see the graduation rates.
“Our slogan is “to be rather than to seem,” Clermont said. “It’s just that we as the students and as the faculty need to make sure the campus is diverse and that we make sure everybody graduates, and make sure everybody wants to stay here.”
According to Clermont, there will always be a predominant race on every campus. If you make sure every race is successful, however, it will set Trevecca apart from other campuses.
“I really believe there’s a place here for me at Trevecca,” Clermont said. “I’m in a place right now, but it’s still building and growing.”
Michelle Gaertner, associate dean of student success, is also a part of the team in Bud Robinson working to make sure all students have what they need to be successful.
“I’m hoping that the things we’re putting into place here, in the Center for Student Development, can impact the graduation rates,” Gaertner said. “It’s important to us, and it’s something we’re always working on.”
Gaertner said that faculty, staff, and professors received training on how to be sensitive to diverse groups of students. Training was provided by Christena Cleveland, an expert in the field of diversity and reconciliation. They were also encouraged to read Cleveland’s book, “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart.”
“We are absolutely very intentional about those things,” Gaertner said. “It’s our job to create trust with staff, administrators and professors here. We need to create a sense of trust and comfortableness so that students will come to us.”
One of the most important things to Gaertner is getting students to feel comfortable using the resources available to them and help them process and work through issues they may have.
“We’re here, we care and give us a chance to assist them and meet them wherever their needs may be,” Gaertner said. “Every race matters, and it makes me sad to think that they think theirs doesn’t.”