Why holding an orientation for black students is the right thing to do

In the heavily-politicized and racially-charged environment in which our nation finds itself today, I suppose it is not surprising that some observers would seize upon a program like the University of San Francisco’s Black Student Orientation and criticize it as promoting segregation, or providing a benefit from which other students are excluded.

A few right-wing websites did just that at the beginning of this academic year.  I suppose I also shouldn’t be surprised that the coverage and accompanying “commentary” in the social media sphere implied that we should be ashamed of this program.  And I also shouldn’t be surprised that these observers were not curious about facts, context, or the reasons why USF instituted such a program.

Our Black Student Orientation isn’t unique.  It mirrors those held at many other colleges and universities which, like USF, have recognized that different populations of students come to our universities with distinct experiences and needs, and their success can best be ensured through tailored and special-focus support programs.

This recognition is based not only on our understanding of our own students, but also on a long and rich history of scholarly research that has shown that students from different groups have varying experiences in both the K-12 and postsecondary educational systems in our country.  For example, the book How College Affects Students21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works, one of the authoritative sources of research on student success in higher education, lists scores of research studies focusing on the educational experiences of black students and how they differ from other groups.  For example, black students often are proportionally underrepresented in our nation’s colleges and universities, so bringing them together in an orientation program at the beginning of the postsecondary careers can help build a sense of community and belonging.

Organizations like the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California, the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, and the Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male at Ohio State University have internationally-recognized scholars and research projects focusing on the educational needs of black students in our nation’s colleges and universities.

Here at USF, faculty like Desiree Zerquera, Patricia Mitchell, Darrick Smith, Stephanie Sears, and Ja’Nina Garrett-Walker (who helped develop and led our Black Student Orientation) all conduct research on the experiences of black students in K-12 and higher education.

USF also offers separate orientations for other groups of students.  Our international students have their own orientation program, where we help them in the transition from secondary school in their home nations to college in the United States – again, taking into account their unique needs, such as having lived in a culture very different from that of our country.  We have a separate orientation for first-generation college students who participate in our Muscat Scholars Program. As the first in their families to attend or graduate from college, they come to us without the benefit of having parents with college experience, so we provide extra assistance in transitioning to university life.  Student-athletes also have a supplemental orientation program.

All of our undergraduate students – whatever their life experience to date — participate in our general orientation program, where information that is common to all is disseminated, and activities that promote a successful transition to college are offered.  Orientations help build community, which helps all students succeed. Addressing the specific educational needs of specific groups of students is not only not shameful, it is the right thing to do.

The leadership, faculty, and staff of the University of San Francisco are very proud of our efforts to enroll and graduate one of the most diverse populations of any college or university in the country.  The most recent U.S. News & World Report ranking of diversity in universities finds USF tied for third in the nation.  Students of all racial and ethnic groups, as well as from around the world (we also have one of the largest proportions of international students among American universities), come to USF because of our programs and activities that help them achieve success in their postsecondary careers.

We are doing exactly what the research tells us we need to do to help all of our students be successful.  If some groups of students can benefit from distinctive programs that help address their unique needs, we will continue to offer them.  And we will not apologize for doing so.