SEMO has record black enrollment

Friday, November 4, 2005
Tanetra Flewellen, left, Brandon Hatcher and Karine Evans, all St. Louis-area students at Southeast Missouri State University, talked over lunch at the University Center on Thursday. (Fred Lynch)

Tanetra Flewellen and her friends can tell the difference just walking across the Southeast Missouri State University.

They are among a record number of black students at Southeast Missouri State University this fall.

"When we first came here we knew everybody," said Flewellen, 19, a sophomore from St. Louis. Now she and her friends regularly run into black students who are total strangers.

For the past decade, the Cape Girardeau university has focused on recruiting and retaining minority students. School officials say their efforts have paid off.

Southeast has a record 873 black undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in classes this fall. That's 545 more black students than were enrolled in 1995. Black students, graduate and undergraduate combined, are 8.4 percent of the student population this semester compared 4 percent in 1995. That year, the state average was 7 percent.

The numbers include students enrolled in classes on the main campus in Cape Girardeau as well as those attending area higher education centers or taking college-credit classes at high schools.

The university this fall enrolled 819 black undergraduate students. The total number of undergraduate students at the university is nearly 9,000.

The university's percentage of black undergraduate students is higher than the 2004 statewide average of 8.5 percent black enrollment among 13 public, four-year colleges in Missouri.

In the fall 2004, black students totaled 7.4 percent of Southeast's undergraduate students. That was a higher percentage than eight of Missouri's four-year public colleges: Central Missouri State, Missouri Southern, Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri State, Missouri State University (formerly Southwest), Truman State, University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Missouri-Rolla.

Among Southeast's 1,679 beginning freshmen this fall, blacks account for 13 percent of the students.

Southeast has 54 black graduate students, amounting to 4 percent of the school's 1,324 graduate students.

School officials welcome the trend.

"We are talking about real change here," said Dr. Dennis Holt, vice president of administration and enrollment management.

He credits the enrollment gains to the university's student recruitment efforts -- particularly in the St. Louis area -- and the hiring of more black faculty and staff, development of minority programs to mentor the students and efforts to reach out to black leaders in the state.

Enrollment success, he said, depends partly on cultivating a public awareness of the university's commitment to black students and other minorities.

A decade ago, black students were critical of the university. A three-member delegation of black students told the Board of Regents in October 1996 that they felt alienated and isolated at the university.

Black students, they said, needed a support system and role models.

"We are tired of having to explain, justify or defend the black race each time we go to class," black student Danielle Carter said at the time.

Dr. Dale Nitzschke, then president of the school, developed a minority programs office and formed a statewide minority affairs commission to advise the university on minority issues.

The university annually sponsors Martin Luther King Day events to celebrate the life of the slain civil rights leader. Such events have an added benefit of selling the university to prospective black students and their parents, officials said.

Trent Ball, assistant dean of students at Southeast, supervises minority programs.

"We have had a change of climate," said Ball, who came to Southeast in 1992 as a graduate student.

Ball, who is black, said the university sought to enroll more minority students. He credits then-president Dr. Kala Stroup with pushing that goal.

Ball said some of the success has come from doing a better job of recruiting students from the large black population in St. Louis.

St. Louis city school district has more than 37,000 students. More than 30,000 or 81.6 percent are black. In 2005, more than 1,200 black students graduated from that school district.

Through federally funded programs, the university now reaches out to minority students in the Southeast region from sixth grade through high school. The so-called Trio programs encourage minority students to enroll and graduate from college.

Southeast has hired blacks for faculty and staff positions. Southeast now has 13 full-time faculty members who are black, five more than in 1995.

At a university that has about 400 faculty members, the percentage of black faculty is small.

But school officials say it's better than it used to be.

Ball said the university has a program to mentor minority students and help them succeed academically.

Many black students are first-generation college students, he said. The message to the students, he said, is clear. "Your first job is your education," Ball said.

Southeast wasn't a household word among black high school students in St. Louis years ago. Anna Burton, a 19-year-old sophomore from St. Louis, said that's changed. She said the university's biggest recruitment tool is the black students themselves. They sell the school to their friends and families.

"It's word of mouth," she said.

Russell Crawford, 22, a senior from Charleston, Mo., said the university has provided opportunities for black students to meet blacks who have succeeded in various business careers. "It lets you know that when you graduate and go into the real world you can be somebody," he said.

Holt said it's hard to attract black students to a school that has only a few minority students.

The university, he said, has worked to get the numbers up to a "critical mass."

Brandon Hatcher, 20, a sophomore from St. Louis, said that even with a growing black enrollment, he and other minority students still must deal with a largely white student body.

Most classes still have few black students, he said.

Like many other colleges, Southeast was a segregated school at first. The university admitted its first black student in 1954..

Holt said the university wants black enrollment to at least mirror the state average at public colleges.

"There is no question we are an institution that has succeeded at that goal," he said.

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