Over the summer, students formed a new group to do one thing: boost the graduation rate of Cornell's African-American male students.
Only 75 percent of them graduate within six years, compared with 92 percent of Asian-American, 91 percent of white and 87 percent of Hispanic male students, according to the 2010 Undergraduate Graduation Rate Report. On the other hand, 90 percent of black and Latino women graduate within six years.
To close this gap, Joshua Mbanusi '12, the academic development chair for the student organization Black Students United, enlisted other black male campus organizations to spearhead new efforts. They reached out to black student unions and historically black colleges for ideas; and applied for a $5,000 grant from Pepsi Inc. to form SWAG: Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate, a peer-mentoring group to counter the sense of isolation they learned that black male students feel on campus.
The SWAG students also rallied other students and even members of Mbanusi's church to vote in the Pepsi application grant process; their mobilization helped Cornell receive the grant.
SWAG members then teamed up with LINK: Men's Alliance; Men of Color Council; and the Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Iota Phi Theta and Phi Beta Sigma fraternities and used various social medias to spread the word about the mentoring program.
"These young men were serious about building community to support their growth, maturation, academic achievement and adjustment to Cornell," said Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs. To ensure that these "most successful students did not suffer academically as they tried to get this program off the ground," Alexander and Alumni Student Mentoring Program staff pursued administrative tasks, such as emailing all first-year self-identified black/Caribbean/African males. Alexander's work was instrumental in recruiting 48 incoming freshmen and sophomores.
"We've had a lot of success in matching mentees and mentors by major, and if not that, by career aspirations or school," said Mbanusi.
The program already boasts 87 members. In addition to the mentor/mentee meetings, SWAG meets semimonthly to teach skills for academic success. For example, the Sept. 10 meeting featured Michael Chen, a lecturer with the Learning Strategies Center, who provided tips on successful time management, and Victor Younger of Diversity and Special Programs, who talked about stress management.
"The programs are geared toward the academic aspect of our lives, but as we all come together toward these goals, we're building relationships," said Olawale Jegede '14, a transfer student from Brooklyn.
"I never expected to see so many people at the meeting," said Jordan Thomas '15, who comes from Jamaica.
Mentors also gain skills through the biweekly meetings. Stephen Breedon '14 said that he had wanted to learn time management skills because of his involvement in various student groups. "I'm on the Student Assembly, representing the Hotel School," he said. "I'm on the LINK board, involved in alumni relations for Sigma Chi Fraternity and on the appropriations committee for the Student Assembly."
"This is not the only club I'm involved in," said mentor William Melvin '14, an animal science major from South Carolina.
The dialogue at the meetings has been affirming, Mbanusi said: "What we've learned already is that the graduation rate is not reflective of who we are, our skills, intelligence, ambitions or dreams."