It may be hard to imagine that anyone could feel alone on a campus of nearly 35,000 students, but for some underrepresented student populations, it’s a reality that San Diego State University is working to eliminate.
With the creation of the Aztec Scholars program last summer, strengthened connections among students are giving way to a new concept across campus.
Now, as these Aztec Scholars finish out their first year of college, they feel not only a strengthened sense of community, but also possess the belief that graduating with a university degree is part of their future.
About the program
The Aztec Scholars initiative increases outreach to prospective African American and American Indian students and bolsters support once students are enrolled at SDSU. It is comprised of Harambee Scholars, named for a Swahili term meaning “coming together,” and Elymash Yuuchaap, a Kumeyaay Indian term meaning “youth think.”
“As a 100-year old university, we have the ability and experience to support, nurture and serve underrepresented communities,” said Reginald Blaylock, associate vice president for student services in the Division of Student Affairs. “By better establishing a college-going culture within these communities Aztec Scholars is an initiative that will have a positive impact not only on these individual students, but our local, national and global communities as well.”
The program’s focus on African American and American Indian students in particular stems from the university’s goal of shaping a student body that better reflects the diversity of the local community, according to Beverly Warren, director of SDSU’s Office of Educational Opportunity Program and Ethnic Affairs.
But attracting underrepresented students to SDSU, explains Warren, is only half of the solution.
“It’s not only about increasing the number of African American and American Indian students, it’s retaining them until graduation,” she said. “Because when it comes to the end goal, it’s great when we can bring students in, but if we can’t create an infrastructure of support that retains students until graduation, then we’ve fallen short.”
Creating those support systems is familiar territory for SDSU, as evidenced by a recent report from The Education Trust recognizing SDSU as a model for sustained growth in graduation rates among underrepresented students, particularly those of Hispanic descent.
When it comes to retaining African American and American Indian students, Aztec Scholars looks to harness the power of student connections, among each other and to the campus at large.
The impact of interconnection
As they head toward the end of their first year at SDSU, the 180 members of the inaugural class of Aztec Scholars are already feeling the impact of interconnection brought on by peer mentorships and weekly one-unit classes held specifically for both groups of scholars.
“This program is bringing about a greater sense of community, not only amongst the African American students or American Indian students, but also infusing them within our university structure,” Warren said.
Through Elymash Yuuchaap, Aztec Scholar Aliassa Shane and her mentor, Kenshennda Penn, were paired up at the beginning of the fall 2014 semester. Although they are from two different tribes, Shane and Penn share a rare understanding of the unique dichotomy experienced by American Indian students.
“In the American Indian community, it’s often said and it’s very true that we walk in two worlds,” Shane said. “Having mentors who understand that is so helpful when you feel down and lost or confused about a situation at school. They’re your family at school, essentially. They catch you when you fall and you catch them when they fall.”
Connecting to campus
While the Aztec Scholars, all of whom are first-time freshman or transfer students, are the primary beneficiaries of the new program, they aren’t alone in reaping its rewards.
Kristina Brown, a sophomore and Harambee Scholar mentor, said although the program wasn’t available when she was a freshman, being a mentor has helped her grow as a leader and contribute to the African American community on campus.
“Bringing us together was a great way for us to build that unity and that family, and it’s made us stronger as a whole,” Brown said. “If this program existed a year ago, I probably would have been more involved in the black community. Being able to talk to someone who looked like me ... I wish I would have had that experience.”