First Year African American Students at the University of North Carolina Asheville: A Strategy for Retention and Success in the Rural Mountains of Appalachia

Enrollment of African American students at predominantly white institutions in the southern United States and especially in rural Appalachia has seen substantial growth since the late 1970s due in great part to federal legislation such as affirmative action and other access focused policies (Harper, 2009). Broad judicial actions like these should have eased the path to public universities in the south for African American students in large numbers (Bobo, 1998). However, numerous issues continue to exist that thwart university access and success, and African Americans continue to drop out at high rates (Townsend, 2007). At UNC Asheville, a higher education institution surrounded by the rural mountains of Western North Carolina, belief systems engrained over generations can create challenges in diversifying the areas where they live.

Many UNC Asheville students come from these rural communities and often find difficulties in navigating both the diversity of thought, as well as diversity of ethnicity found in their new environments. Research demonstrates that African American college students, once admitted continue to believe they do not belong in these settings and part of the reason for this belief lies in the challenging campus cultures they encounter (Harper & Griffin, 2011). We must improve the retention and success of these students as well as the understanding and integration of our rural white students by providing programs that facilitate their social and academic transition into the collegiate environment.

In this presentation, I will address the impact of a residential living learning community at the University of North Carolina Asheville specifically for African American students, called SANKOFA. The belief is that having a group of students with similar cultural backgrounds in addition to extensive training for faculty and staff to facilitate coursework and programming, will increase the sense of belonging to UNC Asheville for these students, as well as will increase their ability to interact with those culturally different from themselves. Once integrated, their opportunities for success in that first year of college can increase, which improves their chances of graduation by almost 40% (Smedley, B.D., 2000).