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Program Helps Black Graduation Rate

December 6, 1999

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Brandi Colander might not have returned for a second year at the University of Virginia had it not been for a peer advising program for blacks.

She felt isolated on the predominantly white campus, hours away from her home in northern New Jersey.

What brought her back to the Charlottesville campus this year, she said, was a program run by the Office of African-American Affairs that paired her with a black upperclassman as a mentor. They studied together, set academic goals for themselves and even attended parties together.

``I probably would have looked into transferring had it not been for the program,″ said Ms. Colander of South Orange, N.J.

Now, she’s an adviser to six black first-year students.

Educators say the university’s peer advising program is a major reason why the school has a black graduation rate of 87 percent _ the highest rate of all public universities in the country. That compares with a national black graduation rate of 39 percent.

The rate measures the percentage of students who graduate within six years of entering as a freshman. The latest figures are for 1998 graduates.

The University of Virginia’s rate ranks ninth nationally among all private and public colleges and is 20 percentage points higher than any state university in America, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The rate also is higher than those at five of the eight Ivy League colleges.

``The reason the University of Virginia is so successful is that they really reach out to their minority students,″ said Phyllis Buford, president of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management at Washington University in St. Louis. ``They should be commended for their efforts to recruit, retain and graduate minority students.″

Other predominantly white colleges have similar minority mentor programs, but what makes Virginia’s efforts unique is its level of parental involvement, said Rick Turner, Virginia’s dean of African-American Affairs. Parents participate in activities in the spring and fall and get a detailed orientation to the school from Turner and his staff.

``When they leave here, they feel this is where their child needs to be,″ Turner said. ``It’s important for parents to know that their child will be well taken care of. You can’t just drop a young black student off at a predominately white university and forget about them.″

The program has evolved to include a black parents’ association that provides services such as emergency loans for black students in need. Such aggressive efforts did not exist 40 years ago. Until then, segregation kept the university founded by Thomas Jefferson all white.

Thanks in part to an affirmative action policy that considers race in admissions, the university now has a black enrollment of about 10 percent, although officials may change that policy in light of recent court decisions.

James Nowlin, a second-year student from Lynchburg, said affirmative action and mentoring programs are needed to keep black students at Virginia.

``The university does have a reputation for having racial tension so it’s necessary that we meet and encourage one another,″ said Nowlin, who often invites his advisees over for dinner and takes them grocery shopping.

That type of nurturing environment will keep blacks at the University of Virginia and maintain their high graduation rates, Turner said.

``There needs to be something internal to nurture them make them feel comfortable and psychologically secure,″ he said.

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