Even though he had attended college for two years in Florida, Jujuan Lewis felt adrift when he transferred to UTC in 2016.
His first school, Stetson University in Deland, Fla., had about 4,000 students compared to UTC’s 11,000-plus. Lewis wasn’t playing football here like he did there. And, though he grew up in Chattanooga, he didn’t have any friends at UTC like he did at Stetson.
“I came from a background that was hard, rough, so I needed support as far as how to acquaint myself with UTC. ‘What can I do on campus to make myself at home, to make it comfortable for me?’” he says.
But one issue stood out above all others.
“Really, the biggest aspect for me was being comfortable at UTC as a black male.”
He turned to Student Support Services for help and direction. Today, Lewis is a senior in finance and president of the Student Government Association. “I got the tools necessary to succeed on campus, to make the grades, to get involved and to really understand the people who work around UTC,” he says.
Lewis is just one of many black male students who have benefited through the advice and assistance offered by Student Support Services, which works with students from many ethnicities and backgrounds. Under the program’s charter, students must be financially limited, the first in their family to attend college or disabled. An application must be filled out and the program is first-come, first-served, but ethnicity is not a factor in who is chosen.
In the past several years, one of its major focuses is reaching out to black male students, the group most likely to drop out of college before earning a diploma, according to national statistics. Recent numbers show Student Support Services is doing an outstanding job.
In the 2016-17 academic year, figures from the U.S. Department of Education Annual Student Support Services Performance Report show that UTC’s average for black males graduating within six years is 73 percent. The national average is 28.7 percent, according to a 2017 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
In another measurement used nationwide, the Department of Education report shows UTC’s retention rate for black male students between their freshman and sophomore years is 94 percent, while the national average, based on a 2015 report from the Clearinghouse Research Center, is 54.5 percent.
“We’ve had astronomical numbers,” says Chris Stokes, student success specialist at UTC.
The focus on black males began in 2010 when Shirl Gholston, director of Student Support Services, applied for and received a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money helped create the Black Men On Campus initiative. Research shows that black males “don’t graduate at the same rate as able-bodied, middle-class white students,” she explains.
For many freshmen, the first year of college can be a daunting and sometimes intolerable task. They may have difficulty navigating the campus, managing their time, even fitting in to the social life. If they’re residential students, it may be the first time they’ve been away from home for an extended period.
Those complications are heightened for many black males, Gholston says.
“If you look at what’s going on in society, about the problems that black males experience, that stuff follows them to campus because people form opinions,” she explains. “We’re not isolated from what’s going on in society. Being a black male, period, puts you at a disadvantage.”
Lewis can vouch for those experiences. He was raised by a single mother; his father was in jail and his brother, two years older, headed to the streets “to make him a man, to make him someone who was respected.” But his brother harbored no illusions about his future.
“He said, ‘Don’t be like me. Learn from me,’” Lewis recalls.
Lewis had the advantage of being an outstanding football player who eventually was accepted by McCallie School. After graduation, he received a football scholarship and other financial aid from Stetson, but they didn’t cover the entire $60,000 per year tuition. The financial pressures brought him back to Chattanooga.
Knowing the efforts his mother had made to make sure he went to college, when he enrolled at UTC, he was determined to fuse her determination with his.
“I always wanted to be a better person than what people portray my family to be or portray what a young black male to be,” he says.
The Black Men on Campus initiative offers several methods for students to overcome barriers they face, which include financial, academic, social and cultural. Student Support Services also covers such issues as making decisions, being responsible, self-motivation, time management and study skills, Gholston says.
“We break the university down to a smaller environment for those students, and then we work on such things as confidence, self-esteem and leadership to help them branch out and go and participate in the larger university activities.”
Some problems stem from students’ lack of confidence and self-esteem, Stokes says, but those can be overcome once they’re on campus.
“You put someone in a safe environment, you put them in a safe place, and you eliminate so many of the misconceptions about where they are in life, of what the media perceptions may be of them,” he says.
“You remove a lot of those negative images out there for them and allow them to find ownership in a safe place. And, in that, they have the freedom mentally to be able to explore their options.”
Through interactions with older black male students who’ve experienced the same problems, newcomers discover that they’re not alone, he says.
“Perceptions overshadow the reality,” Stokes says. “Once you actually talk to someone who has been through a similar experience as you, it’s relatable.
Calling it the “Guided Freedom” approach, “it takes away a lot of the misconceptions they may have, makes them feel engaged, makes them feel wanted, makes them feel needed and that people are willing and open to help them.”
Even though he has coursework, a current internship at Unum and duties with the SGA and as a member of the Lambda Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Lewis returns regularly to Student Support Services offices to discuss his own situation and also to be that older student who helps the new ones acclimate to UTC. It’s his way of paying it forward, he says.
“The main objective of Student Support Services is to breed a culture that wants students to succeed and, eventually, when they’re ready to succeed, they branch off on their own,” he says.
“They take their own identity. They take their own ideas that they gained from Student Support Services and the ones they’ve conjured up from their lifetime and they put them together and say, ‘OK, I can succeed. I can make it on my own now.’”