The Freshman Year at an HBCU by Kelly DeLong
Publication Date: March, 2015
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The Freshman Year at an HBCU documents the lives of four freshmen from their first week of classes their freshmen year to their last. Along the way readers experience with these four freshmen what freshman life is all about—the triumphs and successes, as well as the confl icts and failures. Ulti mately, the purpose of this book is to guide readers in what it takes to survive the freshman year (and beyond).
Read an excerpt now: The Freshman Year at an HBCU
The Freshman Year at an HBCU
Kelly DeLong has taught at an Historically Black College and University for a decade. He is the author of the novel The Poor Sucker.
The Freshman Year at an HBCU will be available from Follett Library Services, YBP, Brodart, and Ingram Book Distributors.
Every August they come—thousands of them—wide-eyed, excited, eager freshmenreadytotakeonthisnewadventurecalledCollege. Theycome from California, Texas, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Georgia, the Caribbean, Africa—they come from nearly everywhere. They’ve saved, they’ve borrowed, they’ve won scholarships to attend college. Their families have hugged them good-bye, have told them they are proud and have cried as they drove away. That first week these freshmen walk around in groups, with roommates, with just-met friends, taking in their new surroundings, acclimating themselves to a new city, to new buildings, to their new home. They walk around giddy, laughing, smiling at the thought that they are finally in college—finally!—that they are new adults with new freedoms and new responsibilities and that in the not-too- distant future—if they can successfully manage their new freedoms and responsibilities—they will hold in their hands their very own college diploma; they will be a college graduate. But, first, they have to tackle the toughest of all the college years—the freshman year.
There is nothing in college that compares with the freshman year. It is the year in which students discover what they are made of. Most first- time college students have never been away from home before, away from their neighborhoods, from their own bedrooms, from Mom’s cooking. Now for the first time in their lives they have to cope without their families by their side, and for the first time they have to make daily decisions that in the past had been made by Mom or Dad. At first this new life can seem exciting, but it can also prove overwhelming, sometimes even paralyzing.
At the same time freshmen have to adjust to life away from home, they also have to adjust to the college classroom. They will soon discover that college is not high school. College will require much more of them than high school ever did. They will discover that professors will not tolerate excuses and will have higher expectations than their teachers in high school. Freshmen will discover that they will have little time to fall behind and even less to catch up. Semesters move fast in college, and only those who are up to the challenge move on.
Besides adjusting to college life, dealing with homesickness, and the challenges of the classroom, freshmen also have to learn how to manage their social time. They have to choose their friends wisely, work with roommates they more than likely hardly know and have to decide what organizations and clubs and activities best suit them as students and as individuals. Freshmen learn that a poor decision in this area could have far-reaching consequences in their quest for an education.
Students who successfully manage the pitfalls and difficulties of their freshman year will more likely be better suited for the rigors of college that lie ahead. They have a much better chance of graduating. Many students, however, don’t make it through their freshman year. At some point, something happens along the way that causes them to leave school. No one benefits when that happens. How can this event—the dropping out of college—be prevented? Is there something that incoming freshmen can learn from to make sure that they are more prepared for college than they might otherwise be and that will quite possibly keep them from leaving school?
The answer is yes. This book tells the story of four college freshmen at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). It follows them from their first week of college right through their entire freshman year. Along the way the reader will learn about who these four students are as people and as students, what their goals are, what motivates them, and, most importantly, the reader will be with them through their difficulties and their mistakes, as well as their triumphs. The reader will learn, through the story of these freshmen, what to do and what not to do. The reader will learn what it takes to survive the freshman year.
To find freshmen who were willing to let me interview them during their first year of college, I spoke to four classes of freshman English. One freshman from each of these classes volunteered, two females and two males. They agreed to stop by my office once a week in order for me to ask them questions so I could learn about them and their lives as students.
Here are those four freshmen and here is what I learned about them.
Tameka was the first to volunteer. Though she looked unsure of herself while she sat across from me in my office, the way she answered my questions led me to believe that she is a determined young woman. She knows what she wants. The oldest of three raised by a single mother in rural Virginia, Tameka believes, she says, “in never looking for a handout and never depending on someone else to give me what I want.” She learned these lessons from her mother, a customer service representative for several churches. Tameka’s father has played next to no role in her life. In the last several years she has only seen him on three occasions. It has always been her hardworking mother who has guided and pushed her to achieve all that she is capable of achieving.
Tameka’s goal after graduating with a B.S. in Biology is to go to dental
The Freshman Year at an HBCU
school. She says, “I always wanted to be a doctor, but never wanted to be part of making life-and-death decisions.” She chose dentistry as her profession of choice after a talk with her mother’s dentist, who explained to her that African Americans are underrepresented in the field. “He told me how blacks often have been discouraged from becoming dentists, how he had been told that he wouldn’t be able to cut it in college and that he would never be a dentist,” she says. Angered by this discouragement, he set out to prove the naysayers wrong. His story of perseverance inspired Tameka to become a dentist. (And, too, she says, “I like that they make good money.”)
A very good student in high school, Tameka believes she is ready for the rigors of college. Besides achieving a 3.89 G.P.A. in high school, ranking 14th out of her class of 230, Tameka also logged thirty to thirty- five hours a week as a cashier in a restaurant her senior year. On top of that, she took five college courses (including both sections of College Composition) through the local community college. Her schedule in high school proved so exhausting that sleep was hard to come by. She says that she “slept here and there throughout the day.” When I ask her why she pushes herself as hard as she does, she replies, “I don’t want to be another statistic. And I want to show my brother and my sister that they can make it too.”
While she believes she is ready for her freshman year, Tameka has her worries. “I’m worried that my shyness might hold me back,” she says. “I’m not someone who wants the spotlight.” She’s also worried about her proclivity for procrastination. And, as is a concern for so many college students, she says that she worries about money. Funding for her education comes from government loans, a scholarship, her mother and the money she saved from her job. Tameka would like to work while in college and crosses her fingers that she gets a position at Walmart. Despite these worries, Tameka says, “I am a person who is determined, hard-working, smart and driven. I won’t let anything hold me back.”
When I ask her what grades she expects to achieve her first semester in college, she says, “A in Speech, A in Algebra, A in History, A in Biology, A in Freshman Seminar and probably an A in World Literature.”
As the first person in her family to attend college, Tameka says, “I have no plans to mess up this opportunity that I’ve been given.” She’s out to prove to herself that she has what it takes to make it, that she is responsible and on her way to becoming a successful adult. Her mother’s parting words stick in her mind: “It’s your life now. Try to make the best decisions you can.”
Michael, the first male to volunteer, says about himself, “I’m a tall, skinny guy with messed up teeth, but I don’t let them bother me anymore. I see them as my trademark. They make me stand out.” Indeed, he has a wide gap in his front teeth, but that doesn’t stop him from smiling, as he did when he came into my office and said, “I want to be part of your project.” He answers questions quickly and has what can only be called “an upbeat personality.” Michael is a Mass Media Arts major who would one day like to be a TV personality like his idols Terrence J and Ryan Seacrest. “I want to have my own show dealing with societal and celebrity issues,” he says.
Michael grew up in Columbia, South Carolina with his mother and father and three older brothers. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. His father works as a short order cook, while his mother works three jobs: at a printing company, at Subway and at the South Carolina Department of Transportation as a cleaning person. Michael is the first person in his family to go to college right out of high school. The brother closest to Michael in age worked for five years after graduating from high school and has also started his freshman year in college.
The support Michael has received in the pursuit of his education from his family, friends and his church has been, he says, “almost overwhelming. At my high school graduation there were so many people there cheering me on that I cried,” he says. He graduated from a predominantly black high school and ranked 48th out of 160 students. While his reported G.P.A. was 3.2, Michael is quick to say that the school made a mistake. “I know my G.P.A. was higher,” he says. “It had to be.”
Despite the fact that Michael is excited about being a college student, he wasn’t always so sure he wanted to go to college. In high school he joined the junior ROTC and had ideas about joining the navy where he could “be on a boat and see the world. I love to travel and I thought that the navy would give me the best opportunity to do that,” he says. “My mother encouraged me to join, but on the day I planned on signing my papers, I had a talk with my dad,” Michael says. His father steered him towards college. “Besides,” Michael says, “by that point I’d already fallen in love with the school and all it had to offer.”
Then came the time to find the money to pay for college. His parents hadn’t been able to save any money for his schooling. In fact, his father had not been able to work for a while due to an illness. After several grueling and frustrating hours in the financial aid office, Michael discovered that his loans wouldn’t cover all the money he needed. He was seven thousand dollars short. He saw his plans slipping away. It didn’t look like he would be able to attend the school of his choice. Then a miracle happened. A family friend chipped in and supplied the money needed to fill the gap. Michael would be able to go to school after all.
Michael expects to receive all A’s in his classes his first semester. He expects to get a job. (In high school he worked forty-five hours a week.) He expects to get eight hours of sleep a night, and he plans on joining “every club.” He says that when it comes to achieving his dreams, “I’m not going to let anything hold me back.” When I ask him who or what inspires him, he smiles and says, “I inspire myself.”
Ashley is a self-described “Daddy’s girl.” She has two brothers in their mid-twenties, and, so, as the only girl in the family and the youngest child, she says her father “spoils her.” If there is something she hasn’t done or has put off until the last minute, such as a project for school, her father is always there to help her. And Ashley describes her mother as a friend, as “someone I can talk to about anything.” Ashley’s parents raised her in the suburbs of Maryland and sent her to a Catholic girls’ school that was half black and half white. She has a sleepy look about her eyes. She sits back in her chair with a contentedness students rarely have when sitting in a professor’s office for the first time. Ashley seems like the type of person that isn’t in a hurry and has few worries.
She grew up in a home where education was stressed. “Both my parents have their Bachelor’s degrees, and my oldest brother,” she says. Her other brother received an Associate degree in Hotel and Lodging Management from the local community college. “My family is very involved with my schoolwork,” she says. “Dad helps me with math and science and Mom with papers,” she says. On the occasions her parents weren’t home to help her with her homework, her brothers chipped in. Ashley graduated from high school with a 3.3 G.P.A.
Because education was stressed in her house, Ashley would like to be a teacher. Moreover, her cousin, an elementary school teacher, told Ashley about the joys of teaching young children, and this discussion caused Ashley to choose Early Education as her major. Eventually, Ashley says, “I can see myself pursuing higher degrees in education and one day becoming a principal. My parents taught me to aim high and never give up.” When she thinks of her parents’ advice, she thinks of the way her mother is a fighter who doesn’t admit defeat. Her mother recently fell and tore ligaments in her foot and yet fought her injury so that she could get around and do all the things she needed to get done.
When it comes to Ashley’s thoughts about college, fun is the word that comes to her mind. That’s what she expects college to be. She also thinks about “partying all the time.” She’s aware though that the biggest challenge her first year in college will be staying focused and getting enough sleep. She says, “For me, fun usually comes before work.” In high school she had fun and still managed to study four to five hours a night. In college she would like to study as much as she did in high school but hopefully get more sleep than the five to six hours a night she got while in high school.
If there’s anything that holds Ashley back, it’s that, as she says, “I’m my own worst critic when it comes to grades.” Sometimes, she says, she can be a little too hard on herself. And not just where grades are concerned. Once in a while she does something she can’t believe she did. For instance, on one of her first nights in the dorm she ordered out for a pizza. “I took my wallet downstairs to pay the delivery person and then took my pizza back to my room. Three hours later I realized that I hadn’t brought my wallet back to my room. I went downstairs, remembering that I had set my wallet on the table. By the time I went back, my wallet was gone,” she says. Her driver’s license, college ID and her credit cards were all in the wallet and would need to be replaced. “I still can’t believe I did that,” she says.
Above all, Ashley sees herself as an optimistic person. She smiles easily and likes to chuckle. She believes that she is a “smart cookie” who will do well her first semester of college. Her grades she predicts will be A in English Composition, A in First-Year Seminar, A in Pre-Calc, B in History and B in Critical Thinking. To get good grades in college, she plans on heeding the advice her mother gave to “stay focused and to have fun but not too much.” Her father said to her, “You know what you’re here to do.” Ashley laughs about her father. She says, “He also told me not to give my number out to boys.”
“I’m not financially enrolled,” is the first thing Reggie tells me after sitting down in my office chair and telling me he wants to participate in my project. “I can’t find a co-signer for my loan,” he says, with a quizzical look on his face, as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying. So far he’s been attending classes and living in the dorms while trying to find someone who will sign for him. If he doesn’t find a co-signer soon he will be forced to go back to his home in Dallas, Texas. The logical person to co-sign for him is his mother but her credit was wrecked several years ago when she lost her job and was unemployed for a year, which caused financial difficulties. Reggie doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father—he chooses only to see him about once a year. In total Reggie has asked five family members to co-sign for him but they have all turned him down. Even his own grandmother—his father’s mother—said no. He says, “She’s wanted to buy a new car and was afraid that co-signing a student loan for me would make it hard for her to do that.”
Despite his constant worry that he’s going to have to pack up and go home soon, Reggie forges ahead with the belief that he will remain a student here. He’d like to stay and be given the opportunity to redeem himself for his poor performance in high school, where he earned a 2.8 G.P.A. He says that in high school his “priorities were out of whack.” He says, “I didn’t have my future in mind.” Instead of studying he spent his time on social media and hanging out with friends.
Reggie aims to be the first person in his family to complete college.
His mother is a high school graduate who works two jobs and he has a couple of cousins who dropped out of college. His mother has always encouraged her only child not to “make the same mistakes I made” and to pursue a college diploma.
A business major who would either like to go into marketing or education, Reggie says that no matter which he eventually chooses he wants to one day get his doctorate and possibly teach, though he’s unsure at what level. While Reggie plans to study more than he did in high school, he isn’t sure how much studying he’ll need to do for the grades he aspires to achieve. His plan is to get A’s in Biology, First-Year Seminar and Culture and Society, and B’s in English, History and Algebra. So far what he has done to work towards those grades is set his phone to remind him when it is time to study.
Besides worrying about his financial situation, Reggie says two things that will be the biggest challenge for him are staying focused and remaining determined. He knows he needs to keep his mind on his priorities and not get carried away with the fun and freedom that college life offers. Coming to college, he had ideas that college would be like the TV show A Different World, where “everyone made good friends and always had something to do” and their problems always got solved. He knows, however, that that was just a TV show. In Reggie’s world one minute he’s on the phone listening to a family member say, “no, no, no” to co-signing his loan, and the next minute he’s straightening his face and heading to his next class hoping that this won’t be his last time.
Tameka tells me she spent the Labor Day holiday studying. She put in nine hours. Mostly she wanted to prepare for a quiz in her World Literature class. However, the instructor of that class forgot to give the quiz, “and I wasn’t going to remind her,” says Tameka. The only grade Tameka has received so far is a 100 for her homework in her Algebra class. At this point Algebra is her favorite class because she finds it easy. “The work covered in that class I learned back in the eighth grade,” she says.
Currently, she’s working on a three-page paper for her history class. It’s due in a day and she has two pages of it completed. In her speech class she’s trying hard to avoid giving her first speech. When the professor asks who wants to go next, “I hide behind the person in front of me,” she says. Her shyness prevents her from volunteering to give her speech. “I’m going to avoid giving my speech for as long as I can,” she says.
Some good news for Tameka in her search for a job at Walmart— she’s had an interview and is waiting for the call back. She’s confident she will get the job. She smiles when talking about it. Another thing that makes her smile is that she’s joined the Biology club.
Tameka says that the best thing about college so far is that she wakes up every morning “knowing I can do anything I want to do.” She says, “I call the shots here.” The worst part is sharing a room, she says. Her roommate, she says, is “alright,” but she doesn’t like it that her roommate tells her to turn the volume of her TV down. As for the food in the cafeteria, Tameka describes it as “okay,” but she’s also quick to say that “I’ve been eating out a lot.”
The worst thing that has happened to Tameka at this point is that one of her professors forgot to mark that she’s been attending class and the Registrar dropped her from that class. “I had to spend some time at the Registrar getting re-registered for the class,” she says. But the experience wasn’t a total waste of time. The same thing had happened to a classmate in her history class and they spent time together at the Registrar’s office. Since then they’ve been hanging out together around campus. Tameka has made a friend.
When I ask Michael about his roommate, he quickly and emphatically says, “I hate him. He called me ‘over the top’ and told me that he doesn’t like me. I will never forget what he said to me.” Furthermore, despite the fact that the outside temperature has been in the eighties and nineties, his roommate turns on the heat in their room. The thermostat is on his roommate’s side of the room and Michael doesn’t feel comfortable going over there and turning it down. Yet, Michael says that the dorms are “great” and that “the people are great. Everywhere I go I say ‘hi’ to all the people I know.”
The food in the cafeteria he says is “okay.” “Add salt and pepper and you’ll be fine,” he says. But then he says that the food in the caf also “makes you use the restroom.”
Computer crashes have been Michael’s main problem so far. One of
his professor’s computers crashed, causing Michael to be dropped from the class. And his own computer crashed, erasing everything he had on the hard drive. His computer problems were not the reason, however, that he didn’t type his paper for his Culture and Society class. “I didn’t know that all papers for college classes are supposed to be typed,” he says. Still, he received a B plus on the paper.
His favorite class so far is English. “I love the diversity in opinion my classmates show in our class discussions,” he says. He’s also enjoyed the topics they’ve discussed so far: masculinity in men, Hip Hop, Jay Z and Harry Belafonte’s criticism of him. Michael is looking forward to his upcoming speech in speech class. He says, “I’ve been working on it for two days and I can’t wait to give it to the class.” Improving his speaking abilities is something that Michael wants to work on since his career aspirations hinge on how well he can speak to groups of people.
Besides working on his speech, Michael has been busy joining clubs. “I’ve joined the Pre-Alumni Council, the SGA, the NAACP and the Campus Activities Board,” he says. “And I auditioned for the fashion show at Homecoming. At first I was told that I didn’t make it. When I went back to ask why, I was told that they had reconsidered and that I would be part of it.”
When I ask him what he thinks of college so far, he says, “I love it.”
Ashley tells me that she’s been doing a lot of reading for her history and Critical Thinking classes. She reads for about an hour and a half a day. Her favorite class is English because they have interesting discussions. “So far we’ve discussed an article that the governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal wrote on race, and we’ve talked about music and pop culture,” she says. “It was fun.”
Thus far the worst thing that’s happened to Ashley (besides having her wallet stolen) has been getting dropped from her classes. Like many students, she had to spend time at the Registrar getting that straightened out. “I didn’t like having to do that,” she says. Another thing she doesn’t like so far is the messiness of the bathrooms in her dorm. “The girls throw their paper towels all over the place,” she says. She likes her roommate though; they’ve known each other since the fourth grade and came to school together. She is a little worried however that her roommate might be a little peeved at her. “My roommate has eight o’clock classes every day and I like to stay up late watching TV shows on my laptop,” she says. And then there was the night Ashley stood in the middle of the floor just “doing nothing” and her roommate woke up and kept saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
Ashley says that cafeteria has “great pizza and great fries” but that “the chili looks like spaghetti. I’m a picky eater and so far I’ve been eating in the caf only the pizza, fries and salad,” she says. “I miss my mom’s cooking.”
Ashley has made friends in the dorm. They like to sit in the common area and watch shows such as Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. She’s also joined the Campus Activities Board and the Bold and Beautiful Society, which she describes as a group of “full-figured females who have group discussions about topics that have something to do with body types.” Next she’ll be trying out for the stroll team.
So far the best thing about college, Ashley says, is the freedom. “I control what I do with my time.” The worst thing, she says, is that she can’t go home. She misses her family. Fortunately for her a family friend lives in the area. Ashley spent the Labor Day holiday at this friend’s house washing her clothes (the washers in her dorm are broken) and “sleeping in a comfortable bed.” The bed in her dorm room is high, and she has to jump up to get into it or she has to use a step stool. Either way, she says, her bed is the most annoying aspect of her life on campus.
Reggie pulled his first college all-nighter working on a paper for his Culture and Society class. “Then my professor didn’t collect the paper,” he says, sounding confused. In other classes he hasn’t had any quizzes or tests so he is unable to gauge his performance so far.
While Reggie doesn’t have a problem with the food in the caf or with his dorm, he doesn’t particularly care for his roommate. They met through social media and Reggie thought he’d like sharing a room with him, but their personalities have clashed. “I’m more down to earth than he is,” Reggie says. “I’m more realistic. My roommate is loud and likes attention and wants people to feel sorry for him,” he says. They haven’t spoken to each other in weeks.
Reggie has yet to join any clubs or organizations. He doesn’t think he should since he still isn’t financially enrolled. He looks dejected. He’s having a hard time engaging in campus activities since he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be a part of the campus. Worrying about his loan has become “a huge distraction.” “I don’t know if I should even be going to my classes,” he says. We didn’t talk for very long, since there didn’t seem to be anything else to talk about.
Studying for Tests and Writing Papers
Conventional wisdom holds that for each class students need to study for at least one to three hours a night. To put it another way, when I was in college, I heard that good students spent, between time in class and studying and writing papers, forty hours a week. What I took away from that number was that being a full-time college student should be treated like a full-time job. As a student, I learned quickly that when I treated college like a part-time job, I got part-time grades—mostly C’s and D’s. When I treated college like a full-time job, I got full-time grades, A’s and B’s.
Putting in time is just the beginning. What’s doubly important is how students spend that time. How they spend that time will ultimately determine how well they will do. To begin, what should students do before they go to class? How should they prepare? Before students go to class they should have already read the material that will be covered in that class. Students should look at the syllabus and see what is to be covered and read that section of their textbook. I can think of no greater waste of time than when students sit in class not knowing what the professor is talking about because they haven’t prepared themselves for the class. Those are the students who play with their phones or talk to classmates. They are the students who are easily distracted. Students who are prepared for the class are involved in class discussion, they ask questions.
Often what students fail to realize is that there is a direct correlation
between preparing for class and being prepared for tests. Quite simply, when students prepare for class, they usually have a better understanding of the material long before they have to take the test. It becomes part of their knowledge base, making studying for a test all the easier. If students are learning the material for the first time when studying the day before the test, then that information is less likely to be retained. What successful students have learned is that it is always better to be an active learner, to go out and get the knowledge, versus being a passive learner. Passive learners sit back and hope that classroom lectures will fill them in with all the information they’ll need. However, classroom lectures should only supplement what students already know, or are in the process of learning. Lectures should never be seen as the only source of knowledge.
When studying for tests, students should begin studying a minimum of four days before the test. Every night the text(s) and class notes should be read over multiple times. I found that for big tests such as finals what worked best for me was to write out the important things I needed to memorize, over and over again until I had these things memorized. Studying for a test only the night before is a recipe for disaster. It might have worked in high school, but it won’t work in college where the material covered is usually more voluminous and complex. When students study nights in advance they have more time to absorb the material, thereby committing more of it to memory.
A note on distractions. I’ve had students tell me over the years that they study best when they are listening to music or when they have the TV on. Research, on the other hand, shows otherwise (Sullivan). Students are often proud of their multi-tasking abilities, but if good grades are truly their goal, then there is no reason to multi-task. Nothing should get between students and preparing for tests.
Just as students should begin studying for tests days in advance, so, too, should they begin writing their papers days in advance. Pulling an all -nighter to write a paper for a class might seem like what college students are supposed to do, but it is certainly the worst possible way to write a paper. The best papers are written by students who take time out of each day—at least four days before the paper is due—to work on writing it. The best advice I can give is to work on a paper one paragraph at a time over those four days. Students need to put aside a half hour or an hour a day to work on a portion of the paper. Papers written all at once will seem rushed and more than likely will lack development of ideas.
Furthermore, without a doubt, one of the best things students can do to prepare for tests and to write papers is to stop by their professors’ office during their office hours. Professors are required to have and to post their office hours and to be in their office during those times. Those hours are for the students. Students must take advantage of them. They need to sit down with their professors one-on-one and have them help them prepare for tests and write papers. When writing papers, students need to write rough drafts and take them to their professors to ask for guidance. In my classes, the good students, the students who receive A’s, often are the students who come by my office to seek my advice and guidance. They are active learners. They don’t want to leave their grades—and their futures—to chance. Good students put in the time on their classes, they prepare for tests and papers, they seek out their professors and ask for guidance.