CEHD aims to connect diverse students

The college will work with five other universities on the project.

Christopher Aadland

Students from diverse communities nationwide often face unique challenges that can hinder their success in higher education.

To help address that issue at the University, the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a grant to the school’s
College of Education and Human Development. The funding will aid the University in finding strategies, like community engagement, to retain underrepresented students and make them feel welcome.

The nearly $3 million grant — which will be implemented over the next four years — will also aid five additional universities across the country. The institutions will collaborate to find the most effective ways to engage students who are from underrepresented groups.

The University’s research will focus on discovering the potential benefits of minority students increasing their engagement with the diverse communities they grew up in.

“Our [nation’s] universities sort of have a culture that’s probably a real middle-to-upper-class culture,” said Geoffrey Maruyama, project director and educational psychology department chair. “This is one way to try and bridge the different cultures the students come from.”

Community-based engagement and learning has a positive impact on a student’s education, Maruyama said. And participation in those activities is an especially important part of ensuring underrepresented student groups are successful in a university setting, he said.

CEHD associate professor Andrew Furco, who is the project’s co-principal investigator, said the project will rely on existing community experiences for students, like service learning, to determine the most effective practices the University currently has in place for engaging minority students.

Furco, who is also the University’s associate vice president for public engagement, said these types of community engagement programs are especially powerful for students from underrepresented backgrounds, as they are sometimes discouraged with the lack of diversity on their college campuses and feel unwelcome.

“These experiences help them connect their academic work to things in their communities,” he said.

Maruyama said another one of the project’s main goals is to become a blueprint for other universities as they also aim to increase the success of students who come from diverse communities.

“As universities engage with the communities around them, they need to know how to do it,” he said.

Maruyama said many universities want to work with all of the communities their students come from to build lasting partnerships, but those schools may face some resistance.

He said some schools in the past have worked with local communities for research purposes and then abandoned the communities when they finish their work.

“If you’ve never done it and you go out to communities and you say things like, ‘Hi, I’m from the university, and I’m here to help,’ it’s not going to go over well,” he said.

Universities need to make students from diverse backgrounds feel more welcome and appreciated in order for them to succeed, said Sondra Samuels, president and chief executive officer of Northside Achievement Zone, a local nonprofit that prepares north Minneapolis children for college.

“There are students who would absolutely graduate from college if they had more support and engagement on that college level,” Samuels said.

She said the new project’s approach is “innovative” and will help institutions learn what they need to do in order to provide the best services and education to all students without singling out those from underrepresented backgrounds.

“This grant — which is pretty unique [in] looking at how to make universities relevant for diverse students in terms of the communities they come from — it’s pretty powerful,” she said.