Black College Students And Staff Make Their Own Safety Net Against COVID-19 Crisis

Santa Monica College's Black Collegians member Nagmi Sharif leads an Instagram meditation session. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

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For years, African American college students in California have had some of the lowest graduation rates of any group, but increased funding for support programs in recent years had begun to turn that around. Now, the economic fallout and the upheaval of shifting to remote classes brought on by COVID-19 is threatening to undo some of those gains.

The safety net that kept many underserved students in school was thin before the outbreak hit — and for many, it could collapse entirely as the coronavirus crisis continues.

"The worst-case scenario is that we see more black students leaving, not enrolling, dropping out or not experiencing success," said Frank Harris III, a professor of Postsecondary Education at San Diego State University.

The success Harris is talking about is students earning a degree or transferring from a community college to a four-year university. Community colleges are key when talking about African American higher education, Harris said, because that system enrolls the most black students in the state. California's community colleges enroll more than 82,000 African Americans, which is more than the total number of black students enrolled in the University of California and California State University systems combined.


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Harris said the response by the Black Collegians program at Santa Monica College and other similar support programs to the financial, social, academic and emotional fallout from COVID-19 may serve as examples for other campuses to keep damage to a minimum among black students.

"A student who doesn't have a community, who's not already connected in some way, could literally be kind of lost in the abyss right now, with no one to turn to, not sure where to go," Harris said. "No one is looking for them, no one is necessarily looking after them."

Those are the students most prone to dropping out now, he said.

HELPING BLACK STUDENTS FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES

Educators and students founded Black Collegians at Santa Monica College in the mid-90s after the crisis of the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles brought a new awareness of how flimsy job and educational prospects were among communities of color.

Today, Black Collegians keeps many students in college and sees them through to graduation by providing basic needs like free meals, help with transportation, and academic and mental health counseling, among other support.

"We talk to them like we are your family," said Santa Monica College counselor Sherri Bradford, the faculty advisor and coordinator of the Black Collegians program.

"People joke and call me Mama Bradford because I'm going to talk to you as if you are my child, because that's how I'm going to care for you."

COVID-19 BREAKS THE IN-PERSON TIES THAT KEEP STUDENTS IN SCHOOL

The program shares space on the campus with a Latino student support program, but employs six counselors dedicated solely to supporting black students. When Santa Monica College closed the campus and moved classes online on March 18, Bradford knew it would be a shock for students to lose those in-person ties.

"Students are feeling anxiety about not being able to be in our space and on campus," she said.

So she took her staff's advice and created her first video selfie on her phone and sent it to nearly 600 students.

"I just wanted to say hello and to reach out to you and say that we're thinking about you and hoping that you are hanging in there," she told her audience.

But the encouraging message may not be enough for some students. Bradford said some of the Black Collegians club members have told her they're dropping out because they're unable to make full use of online classes and support services, which the college announced on April 7 will be extended through summer.

Students across the community college system feel the same way. California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said he hopes to keep the dropout rate directly attributable to the coronavirus crisis to under 10%.

Educators are also worried about the longer-term prospects for underserved students who manage to make it through the current term.

"You're going to have students who maybe finished up the semester but decided they don't want to go to the same thing in the summer or in the fall, so they won't re-enroll," said SDSU professor Harris.

DOUBLING DOWN ON SUPPORTING EACH OTHER

But Harris is hopeful that programs like Santa Monica College's Black Collegians will help see students through the crisis. A key element, he said, is that students in the program are stepping forward to support each other.

"I'm sending you love and light during this time," Black Collegians President Quenarii Lampkin said from her car during the club's first Instagram Live meet-up during the crisis. "I know it's difficult and confusing, especially for me, so I just wanted to let you guys know that I love you."

She and other club officers knew that to stay on track with their education goals, they had to find a way to help each other.

"It's going to sound kind of crazy, but I feel like [the crisis] is making us tighter," said LiDell Montague, Black Collegians' director of publicity, who's studying film editing at Santa Monica College.

"People may not have a job, people may not have that income that may come in, or food may be a little bit scarce but I feel like we're uniting more as a team," he said.

Black Collegians at Santa Monica College is part of Umoja, a 14-year-old statewide network of black support programs. Umoja, from the Kiswahili word for unity, takes a holistic approach that highlights students' physical, emotional and spiritual needs. About half of the state's 114 community college campuses have such programs, and only CSU East Bay and UC Riverside host the programs in those university systems.

The organization provides a safety net that other students may not have at home.

Unlike some students, Lampkin said, she can't rely on her family for support to get through this crisis. She took a new job at an Amazon warehouse after she was laid off from a museum job, but the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift has made schoolwork for her psychology major harder.

"I got hurt my first week, I hurt my back really bad and I just felt like, this is not a job — not to be sexist — but this is not a job for women," she said. "I just didn't want to work there, but it's kind of what I have to do."

Showing that she's also vulnerable is important, Lampkin said, so that younger students who are struggling realize that they're not alone.