For years, about half of UConn’s black male undergraduates were leaving campus before earning a degree. They were talented and motivated, but represented only about 3 percent of the Storrs student body and often struggled to meet friends and mentors who could relate to their experiences.
When UConn pondered ways to retain those promising students, the result was innovative and controversial: It created a Learning Community for black male undergraduates and other students interested in their experiences, designing it to include social and academic wrap-around services to help them remain and thrive at UConn.
In fall 2016, the ScHOLA2RS House was launched: the Scholastic House of Leaders in Support of African American Researchers & Scholars.
And on Saturday, the first freshmen who took a chance on the new Learning Community graduated with their bachelor’s degrees, many of them already heading to prestigious employers, graduate programs, and medical school.
The first cohort of freshmen and sophomores who joined the Learning Community in fall 2016 are on track toward an 84 percent six-year retention and graduation rate, on par with UConn’s overall student body rate.
A few hours after the University’s commencement ceremony Saturday, UConn Learning Communities and ScHOLA2RS House participants gathered virtually for an online celebration, including congratulatory comments from President Thomas Katsouleas and reflections from the students and those who’ve worked closely with them.
“This is no small thing for anybody. You’ve all done yeoman’s work, and congratulations,” Michael Bradford, department head and professor of dramatic arts, who is also faculty director of ScHOLA2RS House, told the graduates during the event.
“I also want to say thank you, because you have blazed a path and added to the foundation. You’ve made it known to everyone coming behind you that this is the way to succeed,” Bradford told the graduates. “Because of you, the foundation of ScHOLA2RS House is unbelievably strong.”
Thirty-three participants in ScHOLA2RS House have earned bachelors or advanced degrees so far, including 20 in Saturday’s ceremonies who joined as freshmen and sophomores during its first year. Others who were upperclassmen when the Learning Community was launched and served as floor mentors or resident assistants had graduated in past years, with most continuing to post-graduate work.
“Before ScHOLA2RS House, UConn was losing these great students. And now, we are graduating these great students,” Katsouleas said Saturday. “Thank you for being pioneers, and thank you for being UConn Huskies – I couldn’t be more proud of you.”
Erik Hines, the ScHOLA2RS House inaugural faculty director when he was on faculty at the Neag School of Education, met the students when they were freshmen and sophomores who were considering with their families whether to join the new Learning Community.
It was a leap of faith. The program, while based on strong academic pedagogy and research on student success, drew criticisms – and more than a few race-based slurs — from some people outside of the UConn community who misunderstood its purpose, underestimated its students, or painted it as new-age segregation.
The reality was quite the contrary: Its students have studied abroad in places such as Brazil, London, and Prague; enrolled in challenging graduate school programs; have been selected for UConn’s Leadership Legacy Experience program; served as mentors in their residence halls and academic departments; and have been officers in a wide variety of campus groups.
The program has also built strong relationships with Connecticut’s representatives in Congress and alumni in Washington, D.C., through the group’s visits there to attend meetings of the Congressional Black Caucus and UConn alumni receptions. The first ScHOLA2RS House students were also guests at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in September 2016.
The Learning Community is now well established in a groove of regular activities that start every fall with a welcoming ceremony that includes new students’ families, faculty and staff from throughout the University, and other friends of the program.
Generous donors have also helped make ScHOLA2RS House possible, starting with $300,000 from the Booth Ferris Foundation for the launch. The Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation has also provided $150,000 to help support the students’ Education Abroad opportunities, and the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation (via Bank of America) gave $100,000 for programming and proactive success coaching and counseling.
UConn alumni have also supported the Learning Community with their time and resources, including donors Marvin Coles ’90 (BUS); David ’76 (CLAS) and Lyn Ermer; Orlando Wright ’01 (CLAS) ’03 (MSW); Steven Washington ’79 (BUS); David Samuels ’83 (BUS); and Jon Greenblatt ’77 (CLAS) and Linda E. Adams. Scores of others also gave gifts through the Ignite and UConn Gives campaigns.
Their support was critical, officials said Saturday, particularly since they believed in ScHOLA2RS House at a time when it was still new and untested, and when the University was responding to critics who did not understand or support its intentions.
Newly minted graduates who participated in Saturday’s event described the Learning Community as life-changing, saying it provided the academic, social, and cultural supports they thought they might only be able to get at an HBCU (historically black college/university).
Nathaniel “Nate” Vereen ’20 (BUS) attended a predominantly white high school and wanted to attend an HBCU, but UConn’s financial aid offer was too good to pass up. But having joined ScHOLA2RS House, he found a community of friends and support that he hadn’t expected at a predominantly white institution.
“It’s a different type of feeling when you have someone who looks like yourself and can relate to what you’re going through,” Vereen said.
Tyrique “Ty” Lindo ’20 (CLAS) agreed, calling the Learning Community “a needed experience and essential part of my college career.”
“I met my lifelong brothers here. They’re pretty much my extended family,” he said of the other ScHOLA2Rs House students.
Hines, the first faculty director and former Neag professor, joined Saturday’s event from Florida, where he is now an associate professor in Florida State University’s College of Education. Despite his job change, he remains a mentor and friend to ScHOLA2RS House students and told them Saturday that he is proud that they pushed past their challenges to success.
“This graduation celebration is fitting because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as this is the way we started ScHOLA2RS House – a lot of uncertainty, some anxiety, fear of the unknown. Yet many of us were courageous to face this uncertainty, as we knew a blessing would come on the other side. That blessing has manifested today, the first ScHOLA2Rs House freshman cohort to graduate,” Hines said.
“We knew that you being in the Learning Community would change UConn and change the world,” he said. “You all have greatness illuminating in and from you.”