New Cal State San Marcos Initiative Will Dig Deeper to Recruit Black Students
When Dr. Biddle first arrived on the Cal State San Marcos campus three years ago, he admits he felt uncomfortable as one of the only black students in his classes.
But he quickly found a community at the university’s Black Student Center, where he serves as a peer coordinator and founded his own group, the Black Psychology Student Association. Today, 20-year-old Biddle is so proud of the way CSUSM faculty and staff have supported and encouraged him, he has returned multiple times to his alma mater, Da Vinci Design Charter High School in El Segundo, to recruit more blacks. university students.
“I’m glad I came here,” Biddle said. “There are so many opportunities for black students. I spoke to friends from other universities and although they have a larger black student population, our student experience here is so unique that I appreciated my decision to come here. I don’t regret it at all.”
Unfortunately, too few black high school students in Southern California are aware of the programs, staff support, and leadership opportunities available to them at Cal State San Marcos. Despite an intentional effort to recruit black students to CSUSM over the past five years, the percentage of black students on campus has not changed.
Since 2016, the black student population at the CSUSM has remained virtually unchanged at around 3.2%. By comparison, black people make up 6.4% of San Diego County’s population, according to 2021 U.S. Census figures.
University officials acknowledged this disparity when the Black Student Center opened in 2017. But when black enrollment numbers refused to budge in the years that followed, the university and a coalition of leaders in the black community, faith, business and education decided to take a closer look at why black high school students in San Diego and Southwest Riverside counties are not applying to CSUSM.
The result of this research is an event taking place on campus on Saturday morning in the university’s Student Union ballroom. CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with members of the year-old Coalition on Black and African American Education.
The five-year agreement, which begins next fall at the CSUSM, will guarantee admission to incoming freshmen and transfers from community colleges who are coalition members who have met the minimum admission requirements of the California State University and other criteria. And once enrolled, these students will be supported by programs such as Personalized Student Success Services (PASS), Career Center counselors and the Black Student Center, which will also celebrate its fifth anniversary on Saturday.
CSUSM faculty member and Coalition member Betina Wofford-Gilmore said she was grateful Neufeldt recognized that the university’s past efforts to attract black students were failing and that new ideas were needed.
“When I looked at the data, not only was the 3% enrollment going for five years, but San Marcos has also grown over that time. So how are we not engaging this community?” Wofford said -Gilmore, a five-year CSUSM employee who is a social work lecturer and directs the FACES faculty program “I’ve been here a long time and appreciate that the president has been willing to sit down and hear of these difficulties and concerns. The beauty of putting something in writing is that it holds us all accountable. It’s going by leaps and bounds. There are other universities that do not want to take this step.
A mission to serve
Since its founding 32 years ago, CSUSM’s mission has been to improve access to education for students in the diversely populated areas of North San Diego County and Southwest Riverside County. The focus has been on opening more doors for students who otherwise might not be on the college path. This has been achieved, in part, through memoranda of understanding like the one that was signed on Saturday.
“We do not have specific enrollment goals for the Black student population, but we are working to build stronger community partnerships that advance student diversity and inclusion across demographics, and this protocol agreement is a great example of this,” said Margaret Chantung, chief communications officer at CSUSM. “As the anchor educational institution in our region, we want our student demographics to reflect the region we serve. This is particularly important given that higher education is a key pathway for the social mobility of students from all backgrounds.
In 2013, the Alliance was founded to guarantee admission to students from partner school districts who meet certain minimum standards. CSUSM was also the first CSU to create a Memorandum of Understanding for Native American students and the first to have a Tribal Liaison and Campus Center that serves Native American students. The university has also been a Hispanic-serving institution since 2010.
The university is also committed to student retention because first-generation, minority, and low-income students are more likely to drop out without on-campus support services. These programs include EOP, CAMP, ACE Scholars Services, and Student Life Identity Centers.
CSUSM also has the highest number of veteran students per capita in the entire CSU system. This is due, in part, to the high number of veterans who live in the area, but also because the campus has a robust Veterans Center and other programs to help veterans succeed.
Form the coalition
Wofford-Gilmore said that while the CSUSM has all the tools on campus to help black students succeed, the message hasn’t gotten through to the black community, so new channels of communication are needed.
For more than a decade, the CSUSM has partnered with religious leaders from the black community to organize “Super Sunday” events during the month of February to encourage churches to spread the message about the importance of prepare for college. But Wofford-Gilmore said churches aren’t the only way to reach the black community, so the coalition was formed to create more channels of connection.
The Coalition for Black and African American Education includes representatives from churches, K-12 school districts, chambers of commerce, the NAACP, black men’s leadership organizations, and students and members of the Divine Nine, a council of historically black fraternities and sororities.
Through a series of quarterly meetings, coalition members uncovered some of the reasons for low black enrollment at CSUSM: student counselors at regional high schools with large black populations are unaware of CSUSM’s targeted programs ; working black parents are not able to attend college-related meetings or visits during work hours or on weekdays; and parents of first-generation students don’t know how to apply for financial aid or help their children get into college.
To address these issues, Wofford-Gilmore said coalition members are going out into the community to educate families. Financial aid and college application workshops will be held evenings and weekends on Zoom. And more will be done to encourage black parents to start talking with their children in elementary school about the importance of a college education.
“Our claim to fame is serving first-generation students, but by doing it only in the traditional way, we’re missing a whole population of people,” Wofford-Gilmore said. “We had a working group with parents to teach them the importance of exposing children from kindergarten to grade 6 in middle school. The exhibition is huge. We know it’s important to not just talk about it. It is important to see that it is possible. If I can’t see it, I can’t dream it and know it’s for me.
Black Lives Matter on Campus
Biddle said the 5-year-old Black Student Center has become his “home away from home”. Each day, 50 to 100 students will visit the center on the fourth floor of the University’s Student Union building.
Now in his third year working at the center, Biddle said he feels a deep passion for helping other students feel at home on a campus where they are underrepresented.
“I want to give back and help black students find their way and feel more welcome,” he said.
The center welcomes 10 groups of students and organizes one or two events per week. Biddle said many CSUSM students live off campus, so the center has become a hub for black students to check in with friends between classes and before heading home.
“There’s always a good mix of students with different energies and great conversations,” Biddle said. “It’s like home, everyone is friends and there are always good vibes. Even though there is a small percentage of black students and staff here, you never feel like an outcast or unsupported. As a black student, you’re usually afraid to engage with professors and administrative staff, but once you break that initial ice, it’s really easy.
Biddle and Wofford-Gilmore are encouraging high school students planning to go to college to attend the Black Student Center’s free birthday celebration on Saturday. A complimentary continental breakfast will take place at 9:30 a.m. and a complimentary lunch will follow at noon. Events include the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, workshops by campus administrators and faculty, the unveiling of the Black Student Center Oral History Project and a panel of Black alumni for current students and tours of the campus for guests. Parking is available on campus. Pre-registration and proof of vaccine or negative COVID-19 PCR test are required, as well as face masks when not drinking or eating. Details at csusm.edu/bsc/5thanniversary.html.