How to Build a Sense of Belonging Among Black and Latino Men


How to Build a Sense of Belonging Among Black and Latino Men

Episode 140. February 28, 2023.

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EAB’s Jarrell Anderson and Alexa Silverman explore proactive steps that colleges can take to help Black and Latino men build a stronger sense of connection with their campus community. With Black and Latino men lagging nearly every other demographic in terms of college graduation rates, colleges are trying creative new approaches to drawing these students in and making them feel valued.

Jarrell and Alexa share innovative programs that are working for partner institutions and identify four key moments in the student lifecycle when making a positive connection is especially critical.



0:00:10.8 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today explore some of the challenges that make it tougher in many cases for Black and Latino men to feel like a valued and integral part of their campus community. Building that sense of belonging is important throughout the entire student life cycle. However, our experts discuss four moments in particular when making a positive connection and drawing that student in is especially critical for retention. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:47.2 Jarrell Anderson: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Jarrell Anderson and I'm an Associate Director here at EAB in our Research Advisory Services Unit and today we're gonna talk about a topic that's very near and dear to my heart which is the topic of Black and Latino men and especially those who struggle to find a sense of belonging on college campuses. And today I have with me my colleague Alexa Silverman who will share some of her insights and research on college belonging for Latino and Black men on campuses. So Alexa, you wanna talk to us a little bit about your research and what you found throughout your findings?

0:01:22.4 Alexa Silverman: Absolutely. Well, first of all Jarrell, thanks for having me on the podcast. Really excited to be back. I believe this is my second Office Hours experience.

0:01:28.2 JA: Welcome.

0:01:29.3 AS: But for those of all who haven't heard from me before, I'm a director on our research team at EAB so I'm one of the folks that leads our research studies and I mostly focus on DEIJ and student success which I think this topic is kind of the perfect melding of those two. We started taking a look at Black and Latino men in college because there was actually a lot of attention on men in college in general. You know, we saw a pretty steep drop in male enrollment at the beginning of the pandemic. I think now that's a little bit more in question. We've seen some kind of back and forth there but what I really do hope that conversation does is I hope it brings some really much needed attention to the lower rates of retention and graduation for Black and Latino men. And that's a challenge that college campuses have faced for basically as far back as the day that goes. So I think it's really well past time to start looking at why.

0:02:27.6 AS: In particular in our research, one topic that really came up was sense of belonging. So we know that men are less likely to feel a sense of belonging in college than women. We know that students of color are less likely to feel a sense of belonging than White students. And we also know there's actually a pretty robust body of research out there that shows sense of belonging leads to student success. All the things you want to see.

0:02:50.1 JA: Absolutely.

0:02:50.2 AS: Greater engagement in class, higher rates of graduation and retention, greater feeling that their college experience contributed meaningfully to what they've decided to do after college. And because this is such a critical and important issue for Black and Latino men in particular, that's really where we focused. Now, if you're a regular Office Hours listener you know our research is mostly done through interviews with you and your colleagues with higher ed leaders and that's exactly what my team and I did. We went out and talked to around 50 or so leaders from all across the US to hear how they're addressing this challenge of Black and Latino men's retention and graduation, to hear where they're seeing the biggest challenges and what they've tried, what works, what doesn't. And I'm really excited to share some of those findings today.

0:03:34.4 JA: Awesome, awesome. Thank you, Alexa. That was very in-depth and very well said. I do appreciate that. So when we talk about the Black and Latino male sense of belonging on a college campus and we conduct research with populations of students and specific niche groups, one of the things that we tend to do is run the risk of overgeneralizing some of our findings, that which could cause problems and challenges along the way, but also could unearth some of the solutions that we're looking for. So can you talk to me a little bit about some of the things that you have been finding specifically with this particular research and how that research has really shaped the way institutions are moving forward, especially because we have institutions who are strapped for resources and things of that nature, who just don't have those resources that are necessary to create certain populations and niche groups and things of that nature. So can you tell us a little bit more about how this research informs some of that practice and what we can do at college institutions to create sense of belonging overall?

0:04:42.9 AS: Yes, and I love that you said what we can do to create sense of belonging, 'cause I think that was sort of the biggest takeaway that we had from this research was the idea that sense of belonging is not just something that you feel or you don't feel. It's not just vibes. It really is something that universities are responsible for creating and owning. And the really cool thing about this research is I think we found a lot of ways that institutions can do that without throwing the whole bucket of resources at it or resources that they don't necessarily have. I think it's really that sort of mindset shift from thinking more reactive to more build it and they'll come, student orgs, multicultural centers, all of which are really important, all of which they should have, but also thinking proactively and thinking, you know, I think this is kind of EAB's student success ethos overall, wouldn't you agree, Jarrell, that we're really focused on being proactive, you know, finding those students kind of before they slip through the cracks, before we're really looking at someone dropping out of college and trying to understand what's going on before you see someone withdraw and kind of getting them back on track. And that was sort of our focus here as well.

0:05:48.4 JA: Absolutely. So what you're saying is that these are proactive measures that institutions can take in order to identify some challenges with these specific populations and to also mitigate some of those challenges very early on, right?

0:06:03.5 AS: Exactly.

0:06:03.9 JA: Awesome.

0:06:04.8 AS: And in just a moment, I can kind of go into depth about what we learned and some of the key findings from the research. But before we do that, one thing I did wanna ask you about, I know that you've shared some of this research and led a couple of conversations recently, our virtual roundtable sessions with student affairs and academic affairs leaders and a session with their teams as well, and I think also bringing in some of the chief diversity officers and folks over in the DEIJ org. So curious to hear just kind of thinking about where EAB's partners are seeing these challenges really play out or how they're thinking about the problem. What kind of stood out to you from those conversations?

0:06:41.2 JA: Yeah, so we've had a number of roundtables that we have hosted so far. We had one on January 12th. We had one on January 26th. We have another one on February 9th. And with those roundtables, one of the things that we're finding very interestingly in the discussions that we're having is the sheer number of institutions who are telling us that they really don't have resources that specifically address Black and Latino men's sense of belonging on their campus. They have general programs like mentoring programs, orientation and things of that nature, but nothing very specific to those populations. And that's what those institutions are really coming to us looking for that research that really gets at the heart of making sure that they understand what to do when they have men on campus who cannot find a sense of belonging holistically and organically on campus.

0:07:30.8 AS: Yeah, and I think it's harder for men. What we hear often is that when institutions do kind of create those resources that are available to students when students request them, it's women that they see kind of volunteering themselves for those resources. I think this is where we're really looking at the stigma around mental health, around asking for help, a lot of things that really get at some of the psychological development of students in college. And so I think really important to think about, yeah, where can we be more proactive throughout the student life cycle?

0:08:04.7 JA: Yeah. And another thing that we're also seeing is that chief student affairs officers are really looking into how do I create a sense of belonging for Latino and Black men on campus, but also create equity across the board for all students, right? How do I address the needs of all of my students and not just focus on these specific populations of students? And one of the things that I mentioned to one of my teams that I was working with just as of yesterday in a roundtable is to really start to think about making sure that we communicate these expectations of what these programs are properly to students and letting students know and being transparent with students and letting students know these are a certain population of students who are vulnerable, who may need these resources. And we have other resources available on campus for everyone. But for this population of students, we do have specific resources to address their needs because they're in a situation that is not like other students and very specific to their needs.

0:09:10.8 AS: Yes. Yeah. I think the way that I really like to think about it is we don't want to make any one population of students feel singled out or say that one particular population is more at risk or has greater needs than another. But what I do think is really critical is taking identity into account and really grounding those programs, those interventions, those engagement opportunities in who these students are, where they come from, their background, their culture, how they see the world, and really bringing that in and highlighting that rather than having it just be something in the background.

0:09:41.1 JA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So there's a number of issues that are very specific to certain populations of students, especially Black and Latino men on campus. And so the next part of our discussion, what I'd like to do is just have us focus on some issues that we're seeing with Black and Latino men and maybe draw out some solutions to some of those challenges, maybe what we're seeing at institutions, what they're doing to mitigate some of these challenges and how we can move forward with best practice. Does that sound good?

0:10:12.1 AS: That sounds great, Jarrell. And I think one thing I wanna come back to that you said earlier is you talked about how a lot of our partners are resource constrained. I mean, that's just the reality of higher education. Even if you're US News top 10, there are still places where you're having to be really judicious about where you align your resources. I hope everyone agrees that the long-term goal is that in every single piece of the student life cycle, students feel included, they feel welcomed, they feel really seen as their authentic selves and encouraged to express their authentic selves. That said, I think for those of you listening today who are wondering where do we start, I think for me there are really four particular moments in the student life cycle that it's particularly impactful to kind of target those interventions, those programs. So on our website on, you'll find a blog post that I wrote about those four critical life cycle moments. And that's, I think... Jarrell, I think that would also be a helpful way to structure our conversation today if that works for you.

0:11:18.4 JA: Absolutely. So while we dive into those particular areas, so what about the first day of campus for Black and Latino men? What does that look like for them? And what are some of the challenges that they might face? What are some of the challenges that we're seeing them face? And what are some of the things that are really cool out in the field that some institutions are really doing to mitigate some of those challenges?

0:11:38.3 AS: Yeah. Yep. So that's number one, first day on campus. One provost I talked to early on in this research said, this is your chance to make a first impression. And first impressions do matter a lot. I mean, I think the first day on campus is tough for everybody, right? I mean, you're still sort of finding your way around, figuring out what is this whole college thing gonna be? Probably saying emotional goodbyes to the family member who brought you to campus. But I think that if you go onto campus as a Black or Latino man, and we know that most of our campuses here in the US are predominantly White and predominantly female, you're probably looking around and thinking, wow, nobody else here looks like me. And I think that's kind of the first impression that we want to break down a little bit.

0:12:22.8 JA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I recall my own experiences as well being an undergraduate at Georgia State University, they had freshmen learning communities for us. And the thing that really helped me out the most was being in the Black educators, freshmen learning community, which I'm not sure is around, but it was very impactful for me to see other Black men who were aspiring to be educators as I was, because I thought that I was anomalous in the fact that I wanted to go into this field that I knew for some intents and purposes wouldn't pay me as much as what my family wanted me to make from things of that nature. But it was really helpful just to see that there were other people who were just as excited about that field and just as invested as I was in the future of education. So yeah.

0:13:13.7 AS: I love that. So love Georgia State, love learning communities. Actually, one of the examples that I highlight in my blog is a pretty similar example. So learning communities are one type of cohort program. And the University of Tennessee, Knoxville really thought about the cohort program, thought about the summer bridge programs that a lot of institutions have, but how do we do this and be really strategic about making this an opportunity for Black and Latino men to come together? So their program, which is the UT Success Academy, brings Black and Latino men together as a cohort. And they actually start on that first day, so right around the time of orientation. The program has a bunch of different components. There are classes, workshops, there are social activities. But I think what's really important is that they think of it as an opportunity for Black and Latino men together as a group throughout that whole life cycle. So starting from the very beginning, going all the way through graduation when they're becoming mentors to the new incoming class of students. This is a pretty new program. They've just done a couple of years so far, but already we're seeing retention gains for students who participate. I think it really just speaks to the power of having a community of people who share your background.

0:14:25.3 JA: Absolutely. Absolutely. So let's go into the second flashpoint that you had. So feeling homesick for the first time, how do institutions address those particular needs for students, especially Black and Latino men?

0:14:40.8 AS: Yes. I also went to an out-of-state college myself when I was an undergrad. I definitely remember how tough that moment was. I think it actually really speaks to that question of sense of belonging 'cause it is that first time that you're sitting there and thinking, oh my gosh, do I actually belong here? Should I be here? Should I have gone this far away? I think it's a really tough time for all students. I think it's a universal experience. Where I think this particularly creates some challenges for men of color on campus is that question of who do you go to when you're feeling alone, you're feeling homesick, maybe you haven't made friends on campus yet? And I think what we see with survey data is, for example, is that women have a bigger support network than men. I think this is also, again, particularly true for men of color. So college women might go to the counseling office and say, hey, maybe this isn't a long-term need, but I'd love to get some resources and I'm going home sick. Or maybe they would talk to a friend. We think from the data, it looks like men are less likely to do that. But if there is someone they go to, it's gonna be their parents. So the first program that I wanted to talk about here is from the University of Alabama because they've really focused there on bringing parents into the conversation and thinking about how parents can be a community too.

0:16:06.7 AS: So their Black UA parent affinity group is a, I would say a kind of a virtual network of families and virtual 'cause a lot of their students are out of state. They're a state flagship institution. And so what they do is they bring parents together both synchronously and asynchronously. They have a live Zoom session every month or two with a parent family program director. And then they also have a Facebook group. And I love when the director talked about this Facebook group. She talked about it as really being a space where parents help each other. And so that's exactly where, you know, when a student calls his parents and says, "Gosh, I'm really feeling homesick, not sure I'm fitting in here, not making friends," they'll post to that Facebook group. Another parent can jump in and say, "Hey, I went to UA too. I remember feeling homesick like that. And also my kid is also struggling with the same things." They've introduced the kids to each other, made friends, made kind of deeper family friendships too. And I think it really just helps them feel like they're a part of something bigger.

0:17:08.7 JA: Yeah. And it's important that students know that, you know, their families and that their campus is invested in them as much as, you know, what we're seeing in those particular examples, primarily because, you know, college is a lonely place for students at times. It's a different world as, you know, elders once told us. And so you're gonna have to navigate that world on your own, but it's good to know that students don't have to be alone, and they can have their families to support. They can have their institutions to support them. So that's awesome.

0:17:37.1 AS: Yeah. And I think actually there's one other program that I wanted to mention here. And in particular, I'm gonna talk about how Virginia Tech does it, though there are a lot of other institutions that have developed kind of similar programs.

0:17:49.2 JA: This is a good one.

0:17:49.3 AS: We know for Black and Latino men in particular, one really important space, important safe haven as one article called it, in their hometown is their barbershop. And the barbershop is such a unique place because it's a male space. It's also a cross-generational space and kind of a cross social group space. So this is where men from all over the town are coming together, having discussions, building friendships, building kind of, I would almost say informal mentorships. And if you're moving out of town, which again, Virginia Tech, lots of out-of-state students, that's kind of what you're experiencing, that loss of that space. And so Virginia Tech has recreated that space on campus with their barbershop sessions program. So what they do is they bring together students, faculty, staff, community members to get a local barber for a haircut, yes.

0:18:43.4 AS: But also what they do that's really unique is they bring in a mental health counselor, and not because this is therapy or anything like that, but because what they really wanna do is encourage these discussions to go a little bit deeper than just some surface level conversations, and actually talk about some of the stuff that's affecting students. So talking about being homesick, missing family, talking about relationships, all those things are very much part and parcel of the way that Virginia Tech sees the barbershop programs working and the power of that space. And I think that it's a really great way to recreate that space, and hopefully, bring a little bit of the hometown to Virginia Tech.

0:19:22.4 JA: Absolutely. And I can certainly attest to that as a former person who used to go to the barbershop. Our listeners can't see me right now. I'm bald now, but I used to have very thick hair, so [chuckle] that is a space where men can just sit down, and women as well, can sit down, enjoy themselves, have organic conversations and things of that nature. So what they're doing at Virginia Tech and a few other institutions, it's absolutely amazing to have that space as a space to really start to build community and focus on a sense of belonging and well-being overall. Absolutely.

0:19:55.4 AS: Yeah, and you know, that's actually something that they started doing in 2020, and it was a space to process just a lot of the really difficult stuff that was going on that was particularly affecting Black and Latino men.

0:20:07.5 JA: Absolutely.

0:20:07.7 AS: And I think they saw how powerful that was and just wanted to keep that momentum going.

0:20:12.8 JA: Absolutely. So let's move on to our third flashpoint, which is realizing that you might be in the wrong major, which I have experienced myself.

0:20:22.1 AS: Ooh. Yeah. Yeah. So this is actually an interesting one, 'cause I did not change my major in college, and I had no idea how much of an outlier I was.

0:20:30.9 JA: Gotcha.

0:20:31.0 AS: So the stat is around a third do change their major, but that's the ones that actually formally go in and submit the form to change the major. The more I've talked to my colleagues who research student success, the more I realized that changing your major is probably a mental process that happens a number of different times before you actually go into the office and submit this slip of paper, or now it's probably an online form that it says, "I wanna change my major." I think it's a process a lot of students go through, and it's one that can impact a lot about your college life, your life beyond college, where you go for a job after college, and so on and so forth. So a really big decision. And it's a decision that I think is easier to make if you have a mentor, someone who you can talk about their own process of choosing a major and where that took them.

0:21:21.7 AS: In fact, I don't have the exact stat on hand right now, but there was a survey about what topic students talked to their mentors about, and taking a major was one of the top ones that came up, I think it was top three. So I think mentorship is really important here. And we know that students of color unfortunately are significantly less likely to have a mentor in college. And so while about three quarters of White students who are surveyed say that they had a mentor in college, less than half of students of color do. We also know that, for not all students of color, but certainly for a sizeable percentage, they're looking for a mentor who also shares their identity and their background. And so that's where a couple of the programs that we highlight in the research focus, and I think also there's another nuance to this that I want to highlight as well, which is the question of emotional labor and the additional and visible labor burden on faculty and staff of color, who are also...

0:22:19.0 JA: Absolutely.

0:22:19.5 AS: A minority on campus. In fact, often even more so than students of color. And so the big question for a lot of institutions here is, "How do I make sure that students of color can find mentors who know and understand and have lived their experiences without over-taxing our faculty and staff?"

0:22:38.2 JA: Awesome.

0:22:39.7 AS: So a couple of ways that I've seen institutions do this that really stand out, so one is thinking about, well, traditionally we think mentorship is really this one-on-one relationship, The University of Colorado Boulder looks at it as a one-to-many relationship. So they have, I think it started as a faculty fireside chat, and they actually also do this in learning communities, so again, coming back to the power of the first year learning community. Where that program evolved over the years is that they focused a lot more on the un-incorporating identity into the programs, so they'll now ask mentors and mentees, "What are identities that you identify with? Do you want a mentor who shares that identity?" And that could be being a Black or Latino man, that could also be being a physics major. That could also be being a student from New York. There are a lot of different ways that students and faculty themselves volunteer and say, "This is where I wanna focus, this is the identity that feels most important, most salient to me right now." And they try to match students and mentors really thoughtfully, based on those groups. So again, so these conversations can kind of go a little deeper and talk about the role that identity plays in choosing a major, choosing a career path. And so on and so forth.

0:23:58.3 AS: The other place where we've seen institutions kind of add additional mentorship capacity is through peer mentoring. This is actually an area EAB has looked into pretty extensively, and I definitely recommend checking out our peer mentor toolkit on It's a great resource. And we have a lot of examples of peer mentorship programs that are also infused around identity. And I think that's because in particular, when we think about students of color, and in particular men of color, a lot of them have had experiences with authority figures in their K-12 education that were just, let's just say, not good. And that having a mentor come in as this authority figure who's telling you what mentor to choose, what path to take with your life, sometimes that's actually not even the right approach for students. And so really, the value of peer mentorship is it's sort of, it's an opportunity that breaks down that relationship and makes it less hierarchical, less about an authority figure telling a student what to do, and more about students coming together as peers, as friends, just giving each other friendly advice.

0:25:04.4 JA: Next, we do want to focus in on a little bit next steps after graduation, that last flashpoint that you mentioned, and how do students not only create a sense of belonging within their... Throughout their tenure on a college campus, but what happens next after graduation? Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

0:25:24.1 AS: Yeah, yeah, so I think this really ties in well to flashpoint number three on changing a major. Now you're taking that next step. You're picking your career path, picking what to do after college. Is it grad school? Internship? Full-time job? Gap year? All kinds of options there and it's a hard... Again, kind of a hard choice for every student, one that a lot of students struggle with. It's a difficult time but I think this is also another place where for students of color, there are aspects of that job hunt that are extra complicated. So you want to know not just, "Is this the right job for me, my skills, experiences?", but also, "Am I gonna be discriminated against? Am I gonna be discriminated against in hiring? What's my experience gonna be like when I actually step into that workplace, and can I find a job where I can continue to express myself and my identity?" So, I think this is another place where bringing students together around identity is really important.

0:26:26.3 AS: And one example that we found... And it was actually a researcher on my team who surfaced this who attended the University of Maryland and it's the University of Maryland's Black Alumni Network, so this is, again, kind of a mentoring-focused program but in particular, really focused on career. Their program is a six-week, really focused program and the goal is for a student and their mentor to identify a goal together and work toward that goal, something around career. So it could be something like interviewing skills, doing mock interviews, via virtual job shadow, lots of different ways that they could use that time. It's also all-virtual and over Zoom because UMD alumni are everywhere and not all of them stay here in the DC area, where I am coming to you from. But that's a way for alumni to give back as well, regardless of where they ended up.

0:27:16.0 JA: Yeah, absolutely. That's awesome. Yeah. We also know that in that particular vein as well, so we do have an example in the research with Case Western, is another institution that has more of a trichotomous approach to how they manage peer mentoring, not only how they manage the life cycle of the student throughout their tenure on campus, but also how they manage the student after graduation. So again, that trichotomous approach is that they match them with mentors on campus very early on. They also look at the faculty and staff experience so partnering them with a faculty or a staff member and then an alumni as well, like in the University of Maryland case which is absolutely phenomenal. And some great practice coming out of the field with some of those institutions. Absolutely, that's amazing. And it's amazing that these institutions are focused on students after their graduation as well as their tenure on the campus. Yeah.

0:28:13.0 AS: Yeah. Yeah, I love it. Also, again, kind of acknowledging there's no one mentor who has to do it all.

0:28:18.5 JA: Not at all. Not at all. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So, our time here is almost up, Alexa, unfortunately.

0:28:24.5 AS: Oh, gosh. Yes.

0:28:25.5 JA: I could spend all day talking to you about research that we have coming out of the field but what I do want to know is, what are your recommendations for student affairs leaders or institutional leaders who are really looking at building a sense of belonging for the populations that we talked about today and just getting that first step? What should be that approach that they take?

0:28:46.5 AS: Yeah. Well, time really does fly when you're having fun or when you're talking about EAB research, but certainly a few things that I would love everyone who's listening to take away, the first one we've really just touched on which is, think broadly about what a mentor can be, who a mentor can be. It's not just a faculty or staff member, doesn't have to be someone in the same discipline as the student. And that also means thinking about who has the potential to be a mentor with just the right resources, the right training and so on. So expanding that pool of mentors, that's one. Two is, don't stop at the first year. I think a lot of the programs that I've seen are really focused on that first year, that transition to campus, but we also don't want students to lose that sense of community and support when they transition to the second year, so keep finding opportunities to bring them together. Keep that momentum going through all four years.

0:29:38.9 AS: And finally, coming back to something we talked about really early on in this conversation, I think it's important to design those programs around the Black and Latino identity and experience. So some of our favorite programs, the ones we've talked about today, really intentionally incorporate Black and Latino men's voices and topics like how mental health specifically impacts those communities, so keep identity front and center. It's really important to students and it's really important to designing effective programs too.

0:30:07.2 JA: Awesome, awesome. That's great advice, Alexa. Thank you so much for those gems that you've shared, especially about our research for Black and Latino men. This has been our time today. Thank you so much for joining us at EAB Office Hours. I am Jarrell Anderson, saying peace, blessings, and all those good things to everyone. Alexa?

0:30:29.3 AS: Thanks so much for having me, Jarrell. I never wanna miss a chance to talk about this research. I think it's a really important topic for so many of our partners and also just one that's fun because all of these programs at the end of the day really are just an opportunity for students to connect, be social, have fun, and I always have fun talking about them, so thanks again. And to everyone listening, have a wonderful day.

0:30:52.1 JA: All right. Bye, everyone.


0:31:00.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore an aspect of student recruitment that is severely lacking at many two-year institutions. We're talking about the way they manage and track communication with prospective students to convert more inquiries into matriculates. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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