At UC Davis, community centers offer academic support

One of them is Amarachi Ojukwu 1,230 black students attending the University of California, Davis, out of a total of just under 41,000.

She said that on an average day, she typically doesn’t meet other black people on campus, which can make her feel isolated.

But it has nowhere to turn – the African Diaspora Student Success Center, tucked away on the second floor of the restaurant, is always full of familiar faces. As a freshman, she studied several times a week at a center that offered academic services such as counseling and tutoring in selected courses, which was a condition of the scholarship she received.

Now that the center has hired her as a student assistant, she is there every day. When she’s not working, she’s safe in her favorite spot: a bean-filled chair that she said appears to be a cloud. The center has become her home away from home – a place where she studies, chats with friends or just kills time between classes.

“I’m always there. From Monday to Friday you will find me at CADSS – she said.

The CADSS is the oldest of UC Davis’ three identity-based academic retention centers that combine traditional cultural centers with academic support offerings, including tutoring and counseling. The other two identity centers focus on support Native Americans AND Hispanic students; a fourth center for Asian and Pacific Islander students—the largest population at UC Davis, with over 11,000 students—is underway, with the goal of determining a location over the next year.

Each center grew out of Academic Retention Initiativeprograms designed to provide marginalized students with the resources and individualized support they needed to advance academically and eventually earn degrees.

To fulfill this mission, academic retention centers not only provide students with a social space – typical of traditional community centers – but also provide academic and counseling resources that minority students feel comfortable with. According to Kat Parpana, who leads the Asia Pacific Islander Strategic Retention Initiative, some students from marginalized populations have trouble working with advisors from a different background; for example, they may not understand the cultural context of why a student cannot change major from what their parents want.

But in academic retention centers, counselors who share the student’s identity are ready to help or can refer students to a faculty advisor who also has that identity or is at least a trusted ally.

CADSS principal Dionica Bell addresses her students, “If you go to my homie, I promise you will be treated with the dignity and respect you deserve.”

Liquidation of capital gaps

Education advocates and leaders in California have long considered closing the racial equality gap—lower college enrollment and degree rates in minority populations—a top priority issue; in 2018, a coalition of institutions and organizations called on the state to fill these gaps by 2030.

Outside of California, institutions and policy makers across the country are increasingly focused on developing approaches and plans to improve minority student achievement. Efforts have included the development of training materials to assist such students with introductory courses, awarding grants to institutions serving minorities, and providing targeted academic coaching.

The UC Davis approach addresses this issue by identifying key academic support systems such as tutoring and counseling that can be potential pitfalls for students of color who may face microaggressions, lack of understanding, and even outright racism from those employed to provide these services. Instead of forcing students to simply put up with staff they have no contact with, it offers them a different path.

Other institutions have launched academic centers targeting specific populations; Queensborough Community College in New York, for example, has a resource center for blacks and Hispanics, and Washington University in St. Louis recently launched a center for low-income and first-generation students. But UC Davis centers are accessible to the majority of the campus population, as 62 percent of the college’s students are non-Caucasian (not including international students, which the institution lists as its own demographic).

According to Parpana, students were looking for counselors who understood their experiences and backgrounds even before the centers were established. Ethnic Studies Advisors have a long history of working with students from other majors who have had a negative experience with an advisor in their home department.

“Our partners in the Ethnic Studies department … initially did a version of our work, and we as a campus had to admit that it was too much work for the people who were doing it,” Parpana said.

Two of these ethnic research advisors became directors of the center: Bell and Rodrigo Bonilla, who heads the Center for Chicanx and Latinx Academic Student Success.

Lori Patton Davis, chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Ohio State University and a distinguished researcher on college campus diversity initiatives, said the ethnic research advisors’ experience reflects a long-standing trend in traditional campus cultural centers.

Staff members at these centers often serve as advocates and mediators for students of color who have felt mistreated or left out while seeking campus services. But that was never the purpose of the community centers; are designed to serve as places where students can build a community and discover and share their cultural identities. In some cases, the creation of cultural centers has also freed student affairs departments from running cultural programs, even during major holidays and celebrations such as Black History Month, Patton Davis said.

“If you have this influx of students looking for these opportunities in a black cultural hub, it signals that (student affairs departments) … are not culturally responsive in the way they are looking for students,” said Patton Davis. “Doing these things becomes a heavy burden on the office because they’re basically doing their job and the work of other offices on campus.”

The UC Davis model appears to be disrupting this trend, she said, by serving as a one-stop-shop for various student services that have sufficient resources and partnerships to perform effectively – rather than becoming a cover for other offices not dragging their burden.

Michelle Villegas-Frazier, director of the Native American Academic Student Success Center, said many traditional university cultural centers try to promote academic success, but these efforts are superficial.

UC Davis’ academic retention centers integrate identity-based programming “with academic success – not that many cultural centers don’t, (but) they do it very lightly,” she said.

By dedicating resources, time, and partnerships to academic support, as well as incorporating data to assess how well their efforts are promoting retention and graduation, UC Davis centers have the potential to do more than cultural centers have historically achieved.

“We are the next step. We are evolution,” said Villegas-Frazier.

Center Programming

In addition to counselling, the centers also offer tutoring services for certain selected classes, as well as other academic, career and community programs. While Parpana does not yet have a physical center to run, it regularly hosts events for the university’s Asian and Pacific Islander students, including visits by alumni who candidly discuss how their identity has influenced their college experience.

“We have Bob at almost every one of our events, and that is extremely culturally significant,” she said.

Campus mental health counselors also routinely visit and provide services to academic retention centers. Ojukwu, a CADSS student assistant, said this is the service she values ​​most; she made contact with one black counselor in particular, who she said no longer works outside the center but whom she occasionally visits in his office after she met him through her work at CADSS.

It was nice to have access to “someone who looks like me in this space (who) can actually help me,” she said.

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