In August, I began telling you why Berea College is so successful at graduating first-generation and low-income students. While, nationally, only 21 percent of these students finish their degrees within six years, their success rate at Berea College is three times as high. The first reason was that our no-tuition model and other measures help them financially. Another reason, which I will discuss here, has to do with “fit” or belonging.
For students of any economic status to thrive in college, their basic needs must be met. Some needs are financial, and other needs are physical, emotional, mental and social. One of those basic needs is to fit in. Decades of research has shown that the more students feels they belong in a group, the more successful they will be.
Let’s revisit Max and Makayla, who attend the same college. You already know that Makayla is a first-generation and low-income student, which means she faces pressures and challenges that Max does not. Now imagine Makayla is the only student of color in her class. In addition to having to balance work and school, she also has to navigate a sense of being different from the other students in other ways and having different, often negative, experiences.
Difference can take many forms. For our hypothetical situation, Makayla could be lesbian when all or most of the others are straight. Or she might be a Muslim while the others are Christians. So not only is she in a different financial boat than the others, she also has a different sense of her own identity. We call this intersectionality—where different aspects of a person’s identity cross. While the sense of difference could be many things, the result is the same. Makayla often feels out of place and alone, and because of that she feels less supported, is less likely to thrive, and is more likely to drop out.
At Berea College, we have an advantage because students come from similar financial backgrounds. We are also very intentional in helping students like Makayla feel they are important members of our community. We do this in many ways, beginning in their first year. One way is by building diverse classrooms where many different identities are present, both among the student body and the faculty, so students see others like themselves. Another way is to create special places on campus where our students can go to feel included, like the Black Cultural Center, the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, the bell hooks center, and the Espacio Cultural de Latinx—a gathering place for our Latinx students. When we learned that males drop out at a higher rate than females, we launched our Male Initiative to help our African American, Appalachian, and Latinx male students build vital connections with each other and become accountable to one another as members of a cohort.
Other important factors in belonging are shared experiences and peer mentoring. Every student at Berea works a campus job and attends Convocation, so they share those experiences in common. We also have special days like Mountain Day and Labor Day that allow students to connect with each other and our staff around the Berea experience. In addition, Berea students mentor other students, whether as a teaching assistant, resident assistant or student chaplain. We do more than I can list here, but, in short, we demonstrate to our students that this place was built for them.
At Berea, we’ve known for a long time that fitting in, belonging, and feeling like you matter are important to a student’s success. This stretches back to our roots as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, and our motto—God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth—reflects our commitment to ensuring every Berea student feels they fit in here. Together with our no-tuition model, those two ingredients have been our recipe for success.