October 2, 2011

SWAG Hopes to Raise Black Male Graduate Rate

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Black Students United recently launched Students Working Ambitiously to Graduate, a student-run mentorship program that pairs African-American freshmen with upperclass mentors to improve graduation rates for Cornell’s black men.

Black Students United recently launched Students Working Ambitiously to Graduate, a student-run mentorship program that pairs African-American freshmen with upperclass mentors to improve graduation rates for Cornell’s black men.

Joshua Mbanusi ’12, the first academic development chair of BSU, said he was inspired to start the program, dubbed SWAG, last April after he read an article in The Sun describing the lower graduation rate of African-American male students compared to other ethnic and gender groups on campus.

According to Cornell’s 2010 Undergraduate Graduation Rate Report, only 75 percent of black male students who matriculated in 2003 graduated within six years, compared to 91 percent for their white counterparts. Black women, on the other hand, graduated at a rate of 92 percent.

Cornell has the “lowest black male graduation rate of any school in the Ivy League,” Mbanusi said. “[This is an] issue that affects us all.”

“The fact that we’re not graduating at the rate at which we should is not a result of our intelligence, or our innate skills,” he said. “When [African American males] get here, there are structural things that are keeping us from living up to our highest potential.”

Mbanusi attributed most of these “structural” problems to a lack of a strong African American male community.

Responding to this perception, SWAG runs as a completely student-led organization, Mbanusi said. Mbanusi added, however, that its independence is not entirely positive.

“I still don’t believe students should necessarily be at the forefront of an initiative to make sure that we graduate,” he said.

Brandon Gainer ’13, a mentor in SWAG, said the initiative ultimately benefits from its student-run status.

“It’s much more valuable to have a peer help you than to simply spit money at the problem” of lower graduation rates among African-American students, he said.

Mbanusi praised the Cornell administration for supporting the African-American community through the creation of Ujaama and other major organizations, but said he was not satisfied with its involvement in SWAG so far.

“When you go to an institution at the caliber of Cornell, and you see a specific group of students that have not been succeeding for some time now, why hasn’t that institution done more hands-on things to combat this?” he said.

Mbanusi said SWAG has received a positive response from various members of the Cornell community. In addition to calls from numerous faculty members expressing their support for the program, SWAG has worked closely with Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs.

The funding for SWAG comes from a $5,000 Pepsi Grant, according to Mbanusi. He said that because there was not sufficient time between SWAG’s inception in the spring and the start of the fall semester, BSU was unable to solicit additional funding for the initiative. Over the summer, SWAG was selected by Pepsi as one of its winning ideas in a contest.

Mbanusi expressed gratitude toward African-American campus organizations that mobilized students to vote for SWAG in the contest. MGLC fraternities bought Pepsi in bulk to obtain codes from the bottles that would increase the value of their votes, Mbanusi said.

“People inside Cornell clearly understand this is a big issue,” he said. “[The vote] was a sign to the administration that this is serious.”

After successfully securing funding by winning a Pepsi grant, SWAG contacted more than 135 incoming freshmen in the African-American male community, according to Mbanusi.

“[SWAG] has really helped me socially so far this year,” said Rollie Hampton ’15, who was contacted by Mbanusi through Facebook this summer. “There is a sense of belonging that will help improve graduation rates, since we’ll know there will be someone to help you whenever you need it.”

SWAG has already planned several events to sustain this new sense of community and integrate upperclassmen mentors in news students’ lives, Mbanusi said. At SWAG’s kick-off event, 45 freshmen mentees were paired with 39 upperclassmen mentors, he said.

Dwight Bush ’15, a new member in the mentorship program, said SWAG has matched students with common interests to help “show [freshmen] the ropes.”

Gainer, a mentor in the program, echoed Bush’s sentiments.

“There is always going to be someone there to show that they can do it, to be a sign of good things in their future,” he said.

Looking to the future, Mbanusi described SWAG’s goals to ensure an African-American male graduation rate of more than 90 percent in the class of 2015 and to bring students together and strengthen the African-American male community.

“This program needs to be sustainable,” Mbanusi said.  “We need to make sure that we get the support we need from the administration to make sure that this is something long-lasting. SWAG can’t be a good idea that dies out.”

Mbanusi emphasized that the second goal requires a change in the psychology of the African-American community at Cornell.

“It’s easy to just struggle, struggle, struggle and get out of here all by yourself without worrying about your friends,” Mbanusi said. “It’s also easy to feel that you’ve already made it once you enter Cornell. But you haven’t really done anything until you’ve graduated.”

Mbanusi said the community he hopes to engender with SWAG is essential to increasing the African-American male graduation rate.

“It’s unfair that so many students who are smart enough, bright enough, capable enough to succeed  get here and fall through the cracks because right things aren’t in place,” he said.

Original Author: Jacob Glick