A pilot program at the University of Washington is finding ways to better support black and brown male students, who often find the campus isolating and unsupportive, and who graduate at lower rates.
One summer day two years ago, Askia Amen drove up to Seattle from Tacoma and took a walk through the University of Washington campus.
He would soon be a freshman at the state’s flagship university. So as he gazed up at the weird gargoyles on Savery Hall’s gothic building, he imagined life as a college student, picturing himself studying in the library, grabbing a bite at the HUB.
He also played a counting game.
Amen, who is African American, tallied the number of students he saw who looked like him. Over a six-hour visit, he counted just 10. From their matching purple Nike backpacks, he knew they were all on the football team.
Amen knew he’d be part of a small minority at the UW — only 1.3 percent of undergraduates are black men, a stark difference from his high school, Lincoln High, where black students made up about a quarter of the enrollment and fewer than 20 percent were white.
At primarily white colleges and universities, researchers say, students of color experience heightened pressure to succeed, to counter racial stereotypes, and to prove that they belong. The pressure takes a toll on all minority students, but especially on young men.
“It’s cognitively demanding for men of color to come to predominantly white institutions, to be in a classroom with people who don’t look like them,” said Joe Lott, an associate professor in the UW’s College of Education, who is African American.
Said Lott, “A lot of energy is devoted to asking, ‘Do I belong here? Should I be here?’”
To help students rise above those questions, Lott helped create The Brotherhood Initiative, a pilot project directed by education researchers at the UW that helps young men navigate college, find academic help, zero in on a major, start internships or research opportunities and learn from mentors. It encourages them to study abroad, get involved in civic projects and become leaders in their communities. Its seminars give students a place to talk about what it means to be men of color in a racist society.
It is the rare college research project that includes administrators at the university’s highest level of leadership, and that groups men from underrepresented minorities together in a longitudinal study to find the most effective practices.
The Brotherhood is trying to solve a UW problem that’s also true of higher education nationwide. Though more students of color are going to college overall, male students in five racial or ethnic groups — African American, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian — are still less likely to enroll. They are more likely to wash out, graduating at lower percentages than their white and Asian peers, who at the UW make up 64 percent of the undergraduate enrollment.
The numbers reflect systemic inequities that permeate every stage of the American education system — including college campuses, where even high-achieving black and brown men often find institutions that don’t support them.
The UW’s Brotherhood Initiative launched in fall 2016. It is a pilot program, meant to improve the university’s collective capacity to support men of color, and its findings could help other universities.
The university is building a “model other colleges and universities can look to in future years for guidance and inspiration,” said Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.
While many universities have tried to narrow the gap, they’ve rarely tapped into research or consulted the evidence, Harper said. (The UW’s Brotherhood incorporates Harper’s own research.)
The initial results are promising. The current group of 60 Brotherhood students have a collectively have a GPA of 3.2, higher than a group of similar students not in the program. The majority are involved in UW student organizations and participate in community service. Many are conducting research and have interned, job-shadowed and studied abroad.
The isolation many students feel, Lott said, is magnified by the Northwest culture of paying lip service to the idea that a person’s race doesn’t matter, while acting on racism that can be subtle, or not so subtle — for example, excluding students of color from a study group.
Lott cautions that structural change takes time. In an era when there’s immediate pressure for every project like this to deliver metrics that show results, he wants to take it slow, and not rush to conclusions.
“This institution’s been doing its thing for years,” he said. “It’s not going to change overnight.”
Mentors ask: How can we help?
During the Brotherhood’s seminar class one day last December, Brotherhood staffers Tory Brundage, a research assistant for the project, and Paul Metellus, the Brotherhood’s student success coordinator, greeted each student with a handshake and a few questions. First-year class leaders Ling Yeh, who coordinates the program, and Dalya Perez, graduate research assistant, were also there to chat and lend support.
How are classes going this quarter? How is the relationship with your mentor? What’s new in your life?
The students formed groups and talked through their academic plans — defining goals, the paths they are taking, and successes so far. Planning the future and reflecting on what has worked is a key to the Brotherhood’s work.
As freshmen, Brotherhood students take a yearlong academic seminar, where they learn about time management, study skills, financial aid, financial literacy, mental health and tips on navigating higher education. They receive intensive advising. The seminar continues in their sophomore year with a focus on developing academic plans and outside activities.
They discuss what it means to be young men of color, and explore “toxic masculinity” — the idea that men often wall themselves off from their feelings, and value dominance, aggression and competitiveness — and to rethink and develop new models of healthy masculinity.
Every quarter, a team of educators assesses the students’ transcripts. They then ask: What’s gone well? What other supports do you need?
Madison Douglas is one of the sophomores, the oldest of four children. His mother, who is Micronesian and works in social work with the homeless, went to college, but his father, who is African American and works as an irrigation expert, did not.
Money was tight when Douglas was growing up, in Lacey, near Olympia. But his parents had high expectations.
Douglas has an easygoing personality, but also radiates a sense of focus. He plans to become a doctor, his family’s first. A high achiever with a straight-A average in high school, he led many extracurricular groups, including student government and the soccer team.
But midway through the first quarter at the UW, he felt a growing sense of isolation. He was one of the only men of color in many classes. Because he was black, his classmates sometimes assumed he was there to play sports. And his initial round of grades weren’t high enough for him to be to be competitive for entry into medical school.
“Black undergraduate men literally go days without seeing other black male students,” Harper said. Because of the high percentage of black men on sports teams — 43 percent of the athletes on UW football and basketball teams are black, according to Harper — “they get treated with the dumb jock stereotype.”
As the only student of color in his study groups, Douglas came to feel just how much of a minority he was — something he had rarely felt at his more diverse high school, Timberline, in Lacey. The sense of not belonging was so acute that he considered transferring.
But through the Brotherhood, he found other students taking demanding pre-med science courses. They created a study group. It made all the difference.
Having shared backgrounds “makes us all feel a lot closer to one another and care less about being judged for what we don’t know,” he said. “Knowing that they have struggled with real life situations that I too have struggled with makes it easier for me to show the side of me that struggles academically.”
Last year, Douglas was one of 130 students to rush UW’s chapter of an international medical fraternity, Phi Delta Epsilon. He’s the first African American/Pacific Islander member.
Without the Brotherhood, “I probably would never have done that,” he said. “But they were telling us, these options and these opportunities aren’t going to come to you. You have got to go out and look for them.”
Every Wednesday, he sits down with Metellus, the student success coordinator, to discuss ways to relieve stress, keep his academics strong and stay healthy. Simply having an older mentor, Douglas said, is a big source of support.
There was no Brotherhood Initiative 15 years ago, when Tory Brundage struggled to find his place as a UW undergraduate.
Brundage has what he describes as an “ambiguously ethnic” look — his father is Jamaican-American, his mother is white. He was eager to talk about race, but at a predominantly white institution, there was a stigma.
“It does not behoove you to be one of the few black people in the space, and talk about what a weird experience it is,” he said.
The Northwest embraces what Brundage calls “pervasive colorblindness” — the idea that race shouldn’t matter. It’s even written into Washington law: Initiative 200, a citizen’s initiative passed in 1998, outlawed affirmative action.
Proponents called it a step toward a colorblind society. But “the reality is, we’re just not there,” Brundage said. When friends told him I didn’t even know you were black, he heard them trying to erase his blackness. He also heard another message: That he was articulate and behaving well, considering he was black.
One day, he read in a study that the number of black males in medical education had been stagnant for 40 years, even though more black men were graduating from college nationwide. The study cited systemic challenges as a major reason.
I have a lot of questions, Brundage thought to himself. The system is rigged. How do I burn it down?
Work on a Ph.D. in higher education leadership led him to a Brotherhood leadership role.
Brotherhood director Joe Lott had a different experience. Lott grew up in Louisiana, and earned his degree at Talladega College, a historically black college in Alabama founded in 1867 by former slaves. He was accustomed to talking about race, and being surrounded by people who looked like him.
When he moved here, he was taken aback by the Northwest’s passive-aggressive approach.
“In Louisiana, people would tell you, ‘I don’t like you, and I don’t like you because you’re black,’” he said. But in Seattle, where people paid lip service to the idea of diversity, he often didn’t know where he stood.
“It’s cool to be a diversity champion” in Seattle, he said. And yet, the outcomes were no better here than at most other universities: Small numbers of students of color admitted to the university. Lower graduation rates for students of color. Few professors of color.
“Nothing to brag about”
Last year, USC’s Race and Equity Center ranked Washington the second-best state in the nation for black student access and equity at its public colleges and universities. Enrollments at the UW Bothell, and to a lesser extent at UW Seattle and Tacoma, reflected the state’s share of black young adults statewide, and black students graduate at nearly the same rate as their peers, the report said.
But “it’s not like anybody is performing extraordinarily well,” said Harper, one of the report’s authors.
Tweeted Ana Mari Cauce, the UW’s president: “It’s nothing to brag about because nobody is doing as good a job as we want or needed … This serves as a motivation to redouble our efforts to eliminate gaps in performance, whether by race, gender or income status. We need ALL our students to have access *and* to succeed.”
In 2015, as interim president, Cauce launched a race and equity initiative, prompted in part by an incident in which students participating in a Black Lives Matter march were called “apes” by people standing near a fraternity just off campus.
“We may not be able to solve racial inequity … but we’ve got to begin by not being part of the problem,” said Cauce, now the university’s president, during a speech on campus. “We can only do that by recognizing it and acknowledging that it resides within us.”
It’s more than just single racist incidents. Institutional barriers can also hobble students of color, Lott says.
For one, the state’s ban on affirmative action makes it challenging for the UW to admit more students of color.
Once they’re here, students of color may need to play catch-up if their schools didn’t offer rigorous, demanding, college-prep classes.
Barriers — such as the ones Cauce acknowledged in her tweet — translate into starkly visible differences in students’ outcome data. At the UW in 2018, 67 percent of white males graduated in four years, but only about 48 percent of black males did. Four-year graduation rates for Hispanic and American Indian men also lagged white and Asian male graduation rates. (The graduation rates for women of color lag those of white and Asian women, although the gap is not as wide as it is for men.)
And while the children of Seattle’s well-to-do can tap into their family’s network of contacts to find a summer internship, no such network exists for first-generation college students.
Paul Metellus has helped students, such as sophomore Dalton Owens from Tacoma, connect with Seattle law firms.
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Douglas, the pre-med student, has used the Brotherhood network to job-shadow doctors at UW Medicine.
Auston Jimmicum, who wants to be a lawyer, got a paid internship through the UW’s Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center. “I wouldn’t have heard about that opportunity if not for the Brotherhood,” said Jimmicum, who is Native American and grew up on the Makah Reservation on Neah Bay.
Jimmicum and Askia Amen, the student who counted so few black people on campus, both went to Italy for a study-abroad program Lott teaches.
“A sense of belonging”
While initial results show promise, two findings have surprised Lott so far. Grouping students together, letting them develop friendships, is a powerful antidote to isolation. “It’s those psychosocial things, the sense of belonging,” Lott said. “These things can be barriers. Once we knock those down and they can focus on learning, we see that this really works.”
The Brotherhood Initiative gathers and analyzes survey data on its participants. It is a research pilot in search of a long-term solution.
Before the UW launched the initiative, Lott and his team spent a year interviewing faculty and students of color, trying to figure out where the university was failing. They researched practices at other schools and reviewed studies. They formed a committee of advisers, faculty and top administrators to help shape the program.
Since then, they have conducted interviews and surveys to see what is working. It is brainstorming ways to leverage the findings, reshape policies and practices, and scale everything up.
The surest sign that the Brotherhood has done its job, Lott says, is that it will no longer need to exist.