Experts offer black and Latino college students eight tips for success

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By Nick Childs

The Hechinger Report, May 24, 2017 —

1. Find — or form — a group of students to study with so you can master the material.

“Anybody who succeeds in science tends to work in some group,” says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “I’m a mathematician and I’ve been doing it 40-plus years. But students who excel in high school are accustomed to being by themselves, working alone in their room. High schools teach kids that if you work with other people you’re cheating or you’re not smart.”

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In programs like Meyerhoff Scholars at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Millennium Scholars at Penn State, students live together, eat together, socialize together — all to make it easier for them to study together. When students study together, they learn from each other and figure out what they might be doing wrong — which doesn’t happen when they study in isolation.

As a doctoral student, Uri Treisman, now a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “saw Chinese students who were good at forming temporary but functional social groups. They didn’t necessarily like or want to socialize with the people in their study group, but they knew how to form a group to get something done. This is a very important skill for future leadership, where you have to form working groups to get stuff done all the time.”

Treisman says that being a tutor has an enormous psychological benefit for black and Latino students. It also helps them learn the material more thoroughly. “When you’re a tutor for other students, you begin to understand at a deep level that you belong there and you can be successful. To see yourself as the helper rather than the help is really psychologically important for kids.”

3. Try not to be too disturbed if people are surprised by your academic success.

Treisman says he’s seen this racist phenomenon undermine students of color. “They don’t quite know how to make sense of this and it keeps eating away at them and undermines their confidence. We have to immunize them against that. Once people on campus see them as the tutor, as the campus leader, that stuff will start to fade away.” If students expect that it might happen, they will be less disturbed it if it does.

4. For those pursuing STEM degrees, start with the introductory science courses, even if the college is telling you to skip those courses based on your AP performance in high school.

“Starting in advanced chemistry or organic chemistry or second-year biology is a bad, bad idea,” says Hrabowski. “The reason I had 12 students — half black, half white and Asian — interview at Harvard Medical School recently, not just for the M.D. but many for the M.D./Ph.D., is we would never allow students to start with advanced organic chemistry. Even if they had 5’s on the AP exam. The point is to get them a stronger foundation. But it’s part of the culture at many schools, where everybody will think you’re slow if you start with freshman-level work. Everybody wants to show how smart they are. So all these kids start with advanced-level work — and they get C’s and D’s. And they don’t tell anybody about it. And then they change their majors.”

5. Go to the tutorial center and to professors’ office hours often — before you need help.

If you get in the habit of doing that at the beginning of each course, you will gain such a strong understanding of the material that you’ll never need to go there out of desperation.

6. Get to class before the professor, sit in the front row with other students in your study group and ask plenty of questions.

This will slowly begin to change the professors’ perceptions of the abilities of students of color, which tend to be negative on many campuses.

7. Look for opportunities to work as teaching assistants in the classroom.

“We had almost 400 LAs [learning assistants] volunteering in our classrooms this semester,” said Mary Beth Williams, professor of chemistry at Penn State University and associate dean for undergraduate education. “That’s a culture change in our own students — a change in the expectations of faculty and how we can engage students in classrooms, and also students changing their mindset as they learn how to learn. Students engaged in an active process in their learning is wholly different from sitting in the library cubicle or in their dorm rooms. The science shows us that is not how students learn the best.”

8. Just because you don’t get an A doesn’t mean you’re doomed.

Williams said she is bothered by the way many students, particularly women, react when they get a grade lower than what they were used to in high school. “If they get something less than an A on a single exam or in a course at the end of the semester, they sometimes interpret that as not being good enough,” Williams said. “That is the wrong interpretation. We need parents to understand that is something that can happen, it’s OK and we need to help students understand that you don’t have to get an A in everything to go to med school. You don’t have to get an A in everything to be successful. They should learn from what just happened. What can they improve with the ways they study or the ways they learn? But don’t give up. Building up that resilience and grit is incredibly important. We see less of it in incoming college students than we have in the past.”

This story was written by Nick Childs for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.