In August of 1976, I took my first steps onto the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I walked into a 4-story men’s-only dormitory – the only black face in the building.
In the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, how does that teenager find his footing? How does he fit in, find community, and thrive in his education?
First, a shout out to my parents. I was blessed with a mother and father who told me frequently that I was great – that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do… and I believed them.
But the educational environment means so much for new college students. It’s one thing to say that you are fostering an inclusive attitude, but it’s quite another to make it real for young people.
I believe that student success is largely dependent on this environment. The more welcoming you are to students - the more inclusive your campus can be… the better the chances that students will matriculate and graduate.
Universities have a responsibility to provide opportunities for students to get involved. Whether it’s through organized mixers, social or academic clubs, or even club sports and tailgating (at SMU it’s called “boulevarding,”) the opportunity to find community should be table stakes for our institutions.
But the students themselves also have their part to play. Just because a university is providing these resources, doesn’t mean the kids will automatically participate. It’s a two-way street. Yes, the students must feel welcomed and safe enough to join in, but they also must take the initiative to engage in what the university has to offer.
The college experience is about challenging what you think you know. It’s about seeing things from different perspectives. The more the institution can provide the proper environment for that engagement, the better off we’ll all be, and the more successful the student will be. I found so much of my success was relationship-based. The stronger those relationships, the better equipped I was to handle SMU.
I distinctly remember the way my first semester was laid out. All the freshmen were grouped together. It didn’t matter what color we were or where we came from, we were all new here and had that in common. We lived together, we took our meals together – a sense of community formed simply from being scared freshmen together. But then the more people you met, the more you’d start to hear about what they were into, and about organizations for those groups. I went to a town hall meeting where the president of the university told us his door was always open, and I felt safe to explore and to grow. And I took the attitude that my parents worked really hard to get me here, and this opportunity is what I make of it. I’m in this new environment with all these possibilities… I felt I could succeed.