Strategic efforts boost CALS in minority student rankings

Sabriya Dobbins remembers her surprise the August day in 2013 when she entered her first animal science class at NC State University.

“I looked around, and I was one of maybe four black people in a class of 100 to 200 people,” recalls Dobbins, who came from a predominantly African-American and Hispanic community in Fayetteville to major in animal science and social work.  “It was very shocking to me, and I questioned whether I even belonged there.”

But in the coming months, as she took on a leadership role in student club, earned a highly competitive fellowship,  clarified her career goals and won a paid, summer research internship, Dobbins came to realize that she does, indeed, belong in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – as do a growing number of minority students.

Recently released rankings from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education show that NC State has moved into the nation’s Top 10 when it comes to graduating minority students in agriculture. And as CALS’ Assistant Dean for Diversity, Outreach and Engagement Lisa Guion Jones notes, “This is something to celebrate, because five years ago NC State was ranked number 21 in the nation for graduating minority students in agriculture, agriculture operations and related sciences at the baccalaureate level.”

Since becoming assistant dean in 2008, Dr. Jones has led a series of strategically planned efforts aimed at increasing the retention and success of under-represented minority students, and she has her sights set on NC State cracking the Top Five in university rankings for minority students in agriculture by the year 2020.

One of the first things she did as assistant dean was to set up a diversity council, and that council helped Jones create the college’s first strategic plan for increasing diversity. These efforts helped inform CALS’ overall 2013-2020 strategic plan, which lists fostering “an inclusive and diverse environment where faculty, staff and students can reach their full potential” as one of 12 key goals.

Jones says the research that went into the strategic planning effort for diversity has proven particularly helpful, because it helped her design programmatic efforts beyond academics – things such as internships, professional development workshops and mentoring – to enhance minority student success.

“The (higher education) literature was clear that for the success of minority students, there are non-cognitive variables that are just as critical as the more cognitive variables – because if they’ve gotten accepted into your institution, they’ve got what it takes intellectually to be successful,” Jones says. “It’s some of the other variables that make a difference when it comes to enhancing retention and graduation rates.”

Jones believes that revamping a course she teaches has been a plus for students. Called the Freshman Advancement Seminar, or USC 110D, the course is targeted to minorities and first-generation college students. It teaches time management, test-taking and study skills as it exposes students to many of the resources available to help them during their college careers. A university study found that those who took Jones’ redesigned course had higher grade point averages (GPAs) and retention rates than did similar students who didn’t take the course.  “The students were very similar in terms of their GPAs and their SATs coming into the university, but those who took the course ended up with higher retention rates and higher GPAs,” she says.

Beyond the first year, Jones invites all minority students who have GPAs below 3.0 to meet with her and map out plans for their academic success. That sometimes includes tutoring – something that can carry a stigma among minority students, Jones says. “I talk to the students, and I also link students up with other students who’ve gotten tutoring, because they can help break down the myths that surround tutoring.”

Jones also helps connect students with CALS faculty members offering research internships and with opportunities for study abroad, scholarships and fellowships. And she has held training sessions for faculty members interested in serving as mentors to minority students.

“Role models are so critically important. The literature is clear that minority students are more likely to emulate role models they can identify with, who understand their culture and perhaps may have faced similar challenges of being a minority in a predominantly white institution,” she says.

Because CALS has such a small number of minority faculty members, Jones makes it a point to show these students that “their role models don’t have to look like them. And I tell them about my mentor – Dr. Ed Boone,” she says. “He was the opposite of me – an older white male from a much higher socioeconomic background – and yet he was my mentor.”

Students, too, can be important mentors, Jones says, so she has worked to strengthen and expand opportunities for peer interaction among minority students. Jones collaborated with Dr. Warren Sconiers, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Entomology, and Dr. Ben Reading, assistant professor of applied ecology, to launch the first chapter of the national Ecological Society for America Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) at NC State. And Jones is adviser to the university’s chapter of MANRRS, or Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences.

Veronica Mbaneme, a CALS and College of Engineering alumnus and Ph.D. candidate in biological and agricultural engineering, has served as the MANRRS chapter’s president since its relaunch two years ago. In that role, she has been a mentor for several undergraduate students, helping steer them to campus resources, encouraging them to reach out for help and greater opportunities, and lending an ear when they need someone to talk to. She’s also helped organize professional development and academic enrichment workshops featuring accomplished minorities involved in science.

Another way that Mbaneme has worked to enhance minority students’ experiences is by using her role as vice president of external affairs in the NC State University Graduate Student Association and as member of the University Diversity Advisory Council to address minority student concerns and issues.

Having a more diverse college is important for a number of reasons, Mbaneme says. Students need to be prepared to interact and thrive in a nation and a world made up of people of different backgrounds, she says, and that preparation can happen in colleges that promote diversity. Not only that, she says, being able to learn from peers and faculty members with different experiences opens students to new ways of looking at things and of solving problems.

Mbaneme says that being able to lead MANNRS and serve as a peer mentor have been important, rewarding steps toward her goal of becoming a university researcher and professor.

“You definitely get where you are on the backs of others, and at some point you need to help someone else make it, too. I think that’s important,” she says. “When we do that, I feel like we’ll see an increase in ethnic diversity in the student body, the faculty and the administrative staff. … It takes a community.”

Jones agrees. “Diversity doesn’t just happen in the Office of Diversity,” she says. “I conceptualize, design and lead the efforts, but it takes a whole system of support.”

For Dobbins, that support system has included Jones, Mbaneme, USC 110D and MANRRS. They’ve all had a role, she says, in helping her find her place within the college, in strengthening her self-confidence and in encouraging her to pursue NC State’s prestigious Caldwell Fellowship, which she received last year.

“I had a hard transition – it was very daunting. But I have found that at this big university, I have a little community of people who are behind me every step of the way,” says Dobbins, who will follow in Mbaneme’s footsteps this fall as president of the campus MANNRS chapter – and in giving back to the CALS community. “I definitely feel more confident in myself and what I have to offer.”

-D. Shore