Greenville Tech Initiative Takes On African-American Student Retention

Jan 28, 2020

Javon Robinson (L) and Devarus Hall are freshmen at Greenville Technical College. The print behind them inspires them to pick their heads up as they navigate life and school.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Craolina Public Radio

Greenville Technical College has no problem attracting a diverse student body. What it does have -- and it's not alone in this by any stretch -- is a problem retaining African-American male students. 

Dr. Alecia Watt, the college’s director of educational opportunity programs, says that more than any other group, African-American male students at Greenville Tech leave school before finishing their degree paths. Her certainty comes from an in-depth study to find out who was not coming back and why. 

The who was easy enough to identify. The why is a bit more complicated. But breaking it down to its most simple elements, Watt says young black men often have trouble feeling as though they fit in at a school where there are few people who look like them or share their life experiences.

"African-American and male" describes only about 10 percent of Greenville Tech's student body, she says. That means it's not uncommon for these students to be the only black male (or black person) in any or all of their classes.

Watt, who is African-American, says she struggled with the same issue when she attended the University of Alabama. 

"It was a lonely road," Watt says. "You feel like you're striving for something that people like you don't do."

She studied engineering, which she found in doing the study at Greenville Tech is a field that black students often don't see anyone else of color pursuing. They get discouraged and give up.

To lessen the percentage of dropouts, Greenville Tech this semester has introduced the African-American Male Scholars Initiative, or AAMSI.

Beyond its concentration on making sure African-American men finish their degree paths, the initiatve  introduces black students to each other and to working professionals of color -- including engineers. Watt says young black men in engineering programs often think there might be no such thing as a black engineer, so the college makes sure these students get to see some (and other professions, of course) so that they know they're striving for something that, absolutely, people like them do.

Watt says the community partnerships Greenville Tech has built, particularly among businesses and professional organizations, has already proven to brighten the moods of students who might have been considering dropping out.

Devarus Hall, a freshman architecture major at Greenville Tech, says the college's efforts have helped him.

"When you find other people who are in that same situation, it’s so encouraging," he says. "We are learning not just from people who want to help, but from people ... who say, 'Ive been there before.'"

Hall says the encounters sometimes give him actual goosebumps.

Javon Robinson, a freshman studying cybersecurity at the school, says he’s grateful for getting to meet African-American professionals and other students of color who can help him keep his head up.

"There’s nothing like somebody saying 'pick your head up, we’re gonna make it through, as a brother,'" he says. 

Words of encouragement and supprt, particularly among a group that is not used to hearing them, Robinson says, could end up sticking with a person for life.

"Your words can be the best thing they heard," he says. "Youprobably won’t remember [the words], but they probably will."

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @byscottmorgan and follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio.