California universities struggle to graduate Black students. Cultural centers aim to help

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Leila Cormier’s breath quickened and her mind raced as she prepared to lead her first workshop at Sacramento State’s resource center for Black students. Surrounded by 25 students, paint and dirt, she wanted to overcome her fear of public speaking and develop skills for her post-graduation goal of changing public policy.

Cormier is a fourth-year political science major and Africana studies minor who has been heavily involved in Sac State’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

The workshop combined two of her passions: mental health and plants. Students wrote affirmations like “I get good grades” or “I am enough” on compostable seed paper which they planted inside the tiny pots they painted for their affirmations to take root. 

Black college students in California say resource centers like the one at Sacramento State can combat a sense of alienation that comes from low enrollment rates. Eighteen of the 23 Cal State campuses and nine out of 10 UC campuses have a Black resource center. 

These spaces vary in size, services offered and amount of personnel. The campuses that don’t have a center specifically for Black students instead have a center for all cultural groups — something Black students say still leaves them feeling marginalized. 

Black students have the lowest graduation rate in California higher education, and the second largest equity gap — a measure of disparity in academic outcomes between demographic groups. They represent 4% of the California State University system’s 454,640 students and 4.5% of the University of California’s 294,309 students. 

The Cal State system has consistently struggled to graduate Black students. The year Cormier joined, Black students  at Sacramento State had a 1 in 5 chance of graduating within four years and a nearly 50% chance of graduating within six years; a quarter of Black students drop out after their freshman year. The UC system has higher success rates for Black students. About 3 in 5 freshmen graduate within four years and nearly 4 in 5 graduate by year six.

June 2023 report from the Cal State Chancellor’s Office recommended all Cal State campuses create centers as part of an initiative for Black student success. The report was produced by a workgroup of university representatives and chancellor’s office staff that held listening sessions with over 250 Black faculty, staff and students. 

In order for Black students to find a sense of safety and belonging, the report states, campuses should “create intentional spaces where they are welcomed and affirmed.”

The MLK Jr. Center has been operating since 2015. The space is a centralized hub for peer advising, peer tutoring, mentoring and leadership development. It partners with community organizations like the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce, which teaches students how to be entrepreneurs. The center has a community room, a study room, a lounge room, workspaces for faculty, an on-site counselor and six student staff members. 

“I’m really grateful for the space we do have because we have visited other campuses, systemwide, and you go in, they have a cubicle or two, [or] it’s a shared space for all the different affinity centers,” Elijah Martin, who works on outreach for the MLK Jr. Center, said.

Martin said about 500 unique students visit each year and around 40 students stop by daily. The data potentially points to the center’s impact — Sacramento State’s four-year graduation rate for Black students has increased from 13.1% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2019. This is still lower than Sacramento State’s overall 27.8% four-year graduation rate.

“When you build that community, you’re far more likely to stay on campus and push through that degree,” Martin said. “Because when things get hard, you have a blueprint.”

Cormier is on track to attain her goals: graduate within four years and leave an impact on her fellow Black students. One of the main reasons Cormier chose Sacramento State was its high Black student population — she refused to go anywhere with less than 2%. There are 1,939 Black students enrolled at Sacramento State — 6.4% of the university’s total population.

“[These are] people that I’ll stay connected with for life, especially because being able to be your authentic self anywhere on campus I think is really difficult. But the MLK Center makes it easy,” Cormier said.

At the center, Cormier works the front desk, signing in students, familiarizing them with the center, and assisting them with picking classes, locating campus resources and setting up workshops.

“[The center] has made my college experience something I didn’t know that it could be. We call it like a mini HBCU,” Cormier said. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a Historically Black College or University has to have been established prior to 1964 with a mission to educate Black students. While Sacramento State isn’t a Historically Black College, the university’s president, a Black alumnus, Luke Wood, recently announced the formation of the Black Honors College at the campus.  Wood said in a press release that the Black Honors College will “implement the best practices that make HBCUs so critical to the Black community.” It is set to launch in fall 2024. 

Black student experience at the UC 

The UC system has a higher Black student four-year and six-year graduation rate than the Cal State system. Black students at the UC graduate at 59.9% in four years and 78.6% in six years. The Cal State system lags behind with just a 23.4% four-year graduation rate and a 47.2% six-year graduation rate.

UC Riverside’s center, founded in 1972 through the advocacy of Black student leaders, hosts the university’s various African cultural and academic programs as well as student organizations. African Student Programs is a standalone department with its own budget and policies and serves the 1,537 Black students attending UC Riverside — 5.6% of the university’s 26,426 students enrolled in fall 2023. The four-year graduation rate for Black students at UC Riverside is 54.3% while the six-year rate is 73.6%. 

Around 50 students visit the center each day, including George Duru Jr., a fourth-year engineering major. Duru works as a student assistant at the center, covering the front desk and connecting students with resources. He also participates in the Sankofa Peer Mentorship Program and said he has become an “older brother” figure for his peers.

Through the center, Duru connects with folks from a Nigerian background like himself and learns about other African cultures as well. He is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Nigerian Student Association.

“Since I was born here, and I haven’t been back home to Nigeria [in a long time], I want to make sure that my ties to my native land aren’t severed,” Duru said. 

Jamal Myrick, the director of African Student Programs, says the center increases students’ sense of belonging. According to the Undergraduate Student Experience Survey, 80% of Black students at UC Riverside agree to varying degrees that they belong at their university — higher than the 67% across all UC campuses.

“To have at least 80% of the scholars feel like, ‘Hey, I have a place called home here on this campus. I feel connected on this campus,’ I think is really crucial to the success of our Black scholars and to the success of African Student Programs,” Myrick said.

A crucial factor to the center’s success, says Myrick, is the amount of personnel. The center has five full time staff including a director, assistant director, program coordinator, Black student success coordinator and administrative assistant. 

When Black students don’t have a center

There are currently five Cal State campuses without a designated Black resource center: Bakersfield, Chico, Maritime Academy, Sonoma and Stanislaus. 

Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dilcie Perez said two of the Cal State campuses without a center have identified it as a goal. Perez said she couldn’t publicly disclose which specific campuses yet. 

Perez said funding for new centers will come from campuses pulling from their own budgets or seeking grants. Former interim chancellor Jolene Koester, upon hearing the recommendations from the workgroup last summer, committed $10 million in one-time funds over three years to these efforts.  

“I think that folks are mobilizing many resources, but our goal as a system will be to identify permanent dollars to help support these efforts,” Perez said.

Tracey Salisbury, associate professor of ethnic studies at Cal State Bakersfield, prides herself in being a resource for her Black students, from connecting them to internship opportunities to buying them lunch. But there is only so much she can do from her faculty office. 

“I don’t always feel I’m giving them what they need. And I think centers can expose that and direct students to the right resources. And then it doesn’t burn you out,” Salisbury said.

Black students and faculty at Bakersfield have been advocating for a center for about a decade,  Salisbury said, but paperwork, cost and finding a location have dragged out the process. Now, work on a new space could start this fall.  

Cal State Bakersfield currently has the Multicultural Alliance and Gender Equity Center (MAGEC), which serves as a catch-all resource center for students of all cultural and gender identities, religious beliefs and sexual orientations. At MAGEC, the room designated for the Black Student Union has a coffee table that seats six people. To avoid overcrowding and better accommodate students, they meet on Zoom. The student club’s president Dominique Miller said he is appreciative of the space offered but the size of the space has made it challenging to host larger events and gatherings.

“You kind of have to make space, so it doesn’t really feel as convenient [or] as comforting and comfortable,” Miller said.

At Cal State Bakersfield, Black students represent 4.2% of the 9,399 students and have an 11.7% four-year graduation rate compared to the 27.6% rate for students overall. 

Miller has only had one Black professor, but none in his engineering courses — where he is typically one of at most two Black students. Feeling like there is no one to reach out to is part of why Miller is so adamant about connecting with students. Having a center creates a safe space for those who may already be feeling alienated, like Miller.

“[Black students] want to know who they are. Ethnic studies helps with that to a point, but a Black cultural center will help with that even more,” Salisbury said. 

Myrick of UC Riverside said that these centers shouldn’t be forgotten in any university’s strategic planning. 

“Cultural center work, identity center work, is crucial to the success of many of our college campuses across the country, especially here in California,” Myrick said.

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