Group of UW undergrads take part in international conference to present research

There was no shortage of scholars at this year’s International Colloquium on Black Males in Education, and nine University of Wisconsin-Madison students travelled to the weeklong conference in Toronto to present their academic research on black student’s school experiences.

From October 2-7, UW undergraduates participated in discussions on the intersection of blackness and education with university students, faculty and professors from over 15 institutions around the world.

thumb_IMG_6555_1024UW had the largest undergraduate presence, and was represented by Tashiana Lipscomb, Nassita Keita, Kingsley Pissang, Kanesha Freiberg, Gabrielle Tielman-fenelus, Dominique Perry, Negassi Tesfamichael, and Chetachukwu Agwoeme.

Patrick Sims, UW’s Vice Chief Diversity Officer and Provost for the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement (DDEEA), also joined students at the event, and said the colloquium is “essential” for attending scholars.

“There are so few opportunities where, in particular, young students of color, especially African American men and women, get a chance to engage environments that are focused on research relevant to their day-to-day experiences,” Sims said. “It’s important to be in spaces like this.”

The colloquium, which entered its sixth year, is presented by Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory along with The Ohio State University’s Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male.

As part of the colloquium’s schedule, undergraduate students had the chance to deliver research presentations that addressed issues related to black students in the education pipeline.

Out of the seven projects showcased during the poster session on Friday, three of them were by UW students.

thumb_IMG_6566_1024While most of the projects were completed by groups of scholars, Agwoeme was one of the few to give a solo performance. The fifth year senior’s systematic review, titled “It Takes a Village,” focused on suspension intervention for black and Latino males in public institutions.

Through assessing the impact of suspensions on student’s academic achievement rates, Agwoeme said the goal of the study was to identify the effects of this relationship and how alternative forms of disciplinary methods can improve student experiences.

One of Agwoeme’s main arguments was that suspension’s outcomes are counterproductive in handling student’s behavioral problems.

He attributed these outcomes to a lack of rehabilitative support in the disciplinary process, which he said not only promotes discipline over collaborative problem solving, but accustoms students to navigating penal systems.

“In suspension, there are no supports… you just stay home,” Agwoeme said. “And if there’s no support from the home, then it’s just reinforced, and there’s more delinquent behavior and school dropouts.”

In terms of how discipline can occur without resorting to out-of-school suspension, Agwoeme said he analyzed three alternatives: in-school suspensions, restorative justice circles, and positive behavioral interventions and supports.

In-school suspensions don’t completely remove students from the institutions, however, he said it can be just as problematic as out-of-school suspensions if there’s no academic component or tracking the student’s behavioral progress.

Restorative justice circles are more solution-based, instead, focusing on student accountability and collective efforts. The method is predicated administration taking students who are effected by an infraction and facilitating a dialogue in between them while they work toward a resolution, Agwoeme said.

Similarly, positive behavioral interventions and supports aim to enhance collaborative approaches to discipline by accommodating school curriculums to student’s needs. Agwoeme said there’s more conversations between the institution and its community, which is a factor that instills empowerment and engagement.

“We saw that schools that implemented these three initiatives and interventions had an increase in student achievement and increase in better behavior of students.”

Agwoeme’s educational experiences in Milwaukee also played a role in his research, as a good friend’s dropping out of high school showed him how out-of-school suspensions are more than just missing class.

His friend experienced issues at home a long with housing insecurities, however, Agwoeme said this turmoil outside of school eventually made its way into the classroom. While he said his friend was never outspoken, a withdrawn and quiet demeanor was enough to warrant suspensions.

As life outside of school remained difficult and the suspensions continued, he said his friend never came back, leaving high school in the tenth grade.

“That’s another reason why I research what I research ” Agwoeme said. “[students] who didn’t get suspended are at 4-year institutions, some of us graduated already…We all went to the same school, but how come we all didn’t get the same experience?”

The underlying factors that influence black student’s school experiences were frequently explored at the colloquium, however, the UW research team of Lipscomb, Keita, and Pissang took the opportunity to investigate how the campus environment can effect black students.

Using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Keita said their research looked at the philosopher’s theory to contextualize UW black males’ interactions with campus monuments and the effects on mental health.

thumb_IMG_6557_1024Maslow suggests that self-actualization, being the best version of yourself, is the culminating stage in this process of meeting basic needs and physiological needs. Lipscomb elaborated, adding that the campus monuments, their names and historical background, can impact how students achieve these needs.

“We got a lot of black males on campus that don’t meet basic needs,” Lipscomb said. “And, in my opinion, the university doesn’t give well enough access to those needs.”

While the research is in its first step, Pissang said respondent’s comments on how they see racism manifesting itself on campus helped guide their research.

The team factored in variables such as student’s perceptions of campus monuments and their knowledge of monuments’ history.

As the notion of race became apparent among the majority of responses, Pissang said they found white students often described campus monuments in terms of aesthetic beauty, while black students aligned the monument’s with themes of racism.

“That showed the difference in not necessarily exposure but the differences of reality for people,” Pissang said.

An example that arose during their research was the erection of campus buildings such as Bascom Hall on Native American effigy mounds. Although some students weren’t aware of certain monument’s architectural history, Keita said some respondents reported avoiding the hill because its history is a source of conflict.
The team said they hope to go forward with the research beyond ICBME, and would like to see how attaining information about campus monuments’ history can influence student’s overall attitudes.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Pissang said. “And I think that says something about the campus that we don’t know.”

Black student’s sense of belonging and views on the level of support provided by the university was also a central theme for Tielman-fenelus, Freiberg, and Perry’s research.

The group not only compared success rates among black students at UW and HBCU’s, but Tielman-fenelus said they also evaluated how the success rates differ with student’s responses toward institutional support. thumb_IMG_6546_1024

Students report feeling higher senses of belonging and support at HBCU’s, however, Tielman-fenelus said their graduation rates are only 35 percent. Meanwhile, black students at UW feel more support from specific scholarship programs than the institution as a whole, but the graduation rates for DDEA students is 81%.

Perry said their surveys focused on themes of community, future success, and how the university has offered students resources. The group later assessed these comments, but found varying responses between the separate cohorts.

“A lot of what we heard [from UW students] was kind of negative in terms community involvement and what the campus provides,” Freiberg said.

Despite the negative response, Freiberg said they found students were just as likely to attend UW again even if they had the chance to attend an HBCU with the same scholarship provision.

While students said UW didn’t support them as much as they could, Perry said students’ access to “safe spaces” enhance their experience. As the safe space represents a place where students can belong, finding one was a “key part” in how they could enjoy the Madison environment.

Freiberg attributed this notion to how student’s search for belonging builds resiliency that is a consolation to not being sufficiently supported.

“Even though there is so much that happens on campus, I feel like it’s needed to prepare us for what the future holds,” Freiberg said.

But beginning to understand how these graduation rates are affected by these factors was the first step of this research.

With the future in mind, Tielman-fenelus said they want to figure out how UW students can simultaneously have the experiences of HBCU students while still being able to succeed and be prepared for life beyond university.

Each team’s research covered a range of topics that placed black educational experiences at the forefront, but the impact of also seeing black professionals studying this area resonated throughout the UW students in Toronto.

“A lot of people preach preach but don’t practice what they preach,” Tielman-fenelus said.

“So it’s good to be surrounded by young professionals that are making moves, people who are innovators in their fields.”

I'm a junior majoring in Journalism and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an avid writer, I anticipate becoming a news reporter who can ultimately bring untold stories to the surface to give a voice to those who can't communicate them on their own.

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