Why Black Students Are Avoiding UC Berkeley 

In the post-Prop 209 era, nearly 60 percent of African-American students accepted at Cal are choosing to attend other colleges — often, because they feel unwelcome.

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But how many African-American students would it take to reach such a critical mass? Noting that close to three-quarters of UC Berkeley's Chicano-Latino students feel respected on campus with a population of some 15 percent of the university, Vice Chancellor Basri said that "if the number of African-American students were doubled [from the 3.5 percent enrollment figure in the fall of 2011] they would perhaps move into that realm of comfortableness instead of where they are right now. So critical mass for African-American students at UC Berkeley might be 2,000 students, or something like that."

That would put African-American enrollment on campus well above its highest number of 1,363 in 1998, when the last of the pre-Prop 209 student population was still present.

Basri argues that "the most quick and effective way" to convince more black students to attend Cal and allow the campus to reach critical mass is through "more financial aid. A lot of those students who are qualified to come to Berkeley are also qualified to go to Stanford and Harvard and so on. And those institutions have a tendency to offer more financial aid." In many instances, in fact, it can be cheaper for students to attend private institutions like Stanford or Harvard than public universities because of the financial aid those colleges provide.

Basri said that another way to increase the numbers of African Americans on campus is to create a scholarship program targeting those students, something he said is already in the works. "It's not illegal [under Prop 209] to have a scholarship program that is targeted at a given race so long as the overall financial aid situation is not preferential," the vice chancellor said, adding that an alternative approach would be to turn to private foundations to run the black scholarship program "outside of university purview. The best solution would be to establish an endowment from which could be spun off enough scholarship money so that we could augment CalGrants and so on for African-American students by three or four thousand dollars a year for fifty or a hundred students. That would probably do it."

Others concerned about the low numbers of African-American students at Cal believe that some of the solutions to the problem are already in place, and only need greater backing from the university. Almost all the African-American students interviewed for this article feel that two existing Berkeley programs have to be both maintained and significantly strengthened: the African American Student Development Office (AASD) and the Black Recruitment and Retention Center (BRRC).

The AASD is situated in a tiny room in the Cesar Chavez Student Center, but its importance to black students on the Cal campus cannot be overstated.

"At most, probably eight students can fit in there at one time," said Naomi Wilson, who worked as a freshmen counselor at AASD. "All of them going into this one little cubicle of a room trying to get advice on academics ... trying to get advice on life, trying to get personal advice, spiritual advice. That is our cultural center. That is our psychology center. We go there for all of our needs."

Wilson added that some of the non-African-American-specific programs on campus "are welcoming, like, 'You can come in here, it's fine if you come in here,' but the African-American Student Development office, the culture in there says, 'You're supposed to be here. You belong here. We want you here.' [It's] inviting in such a way that allows to take pride, again, like this whole notion of pride and ownership over a space."

AASD was the first of Berkeley's multicultural student development centers, created by black students in 1989 because of the high dropout rate in their ranks at the time — which was above 50 percent. Twenty-five years later, African-American students at Berkeley have a retention rate in the mid-70th percentile. AASD plays a large part in that dramatically increased black student retention, students say.

"There were times when I wanted to drop out of Berkeley, myself, for personal reasons," Wilson said. "But then talking to Nzingah [Dugas], I kind of knew that I had to be here, not just for myself and my family but for my community as well. Miss Nzingah is like the guidance counselor for the whole Cal black community, I swear. Everybody goes to her for all their issues, from personal life to academics to issues with students or issues with their professors."

Dugas explained that her office has two focal areas: "academic retention which focuses on academic support and development, and then social and cultural retention, that focuses on leadership development, cultural awareness, support for one's identity and experiences.

"All the research says when a person feels like he or she belongs, has a proper support, and their cultural identity is respected, the more likely they are to stay," she continued. "There are a few more things like financial resources, but those are the things that keep students here."

The number of students served by AASD is impossible to determine, as services by the office can range from direct intake work to students using the office as a check-in point to find out about various campus activities. Everyone interviewed for this article agreed, however, that the space provided in the AASD office is not large enough to accommodate the numbers of students who sometimes assemble there. "A lot of office hours in that space where students are there to build community," Dugas said. "Part of building community is to be in a space, to be able to network, to fellowship. And there's not a lot of black spaces. There's not centers and spaces where black students can just go and be together and network and get to know each other. So the office serves as a hub. It's not big enough. Sometimes I just have to remove myself so they can have that space. Because really, that's my office, but it's become more like a safe community space."

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