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UMN MLK program serves students for 55 years

The College of Liberal Arts Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Program is accredited by the Association for Black Cultural Centers.
Image by MLK Program
MLK Program Director Alexander Hines and Associate Director Evan Johnson work to increase program impacts.

In the basement of Appleby Hall, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Program works to provide University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts students across the Twin Cities Campus with an activism-focused community.

The University’s MLK Program has been working on campus for 55 years — since the Morrill Hall Takeover — to provide a space for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, first-generation, LGBTQIA+ and social justice-minded students to connect in a smaller cohort within the college.

The program follows students from their first year in the freshman experience course to graduation where they receive a special cord for being in the program.

The Morrill Hall Takeover was a 1969 demonstration by 70 of the University’s Black students, who occupied Morrill Hall in protest of institutional racism at the University. The protest resulted in the creation of the Afro-American Studies Department and the MLK program.

In the 2023-24 academic year, the MLK Program consisted of approximately 44% first-generation college students and more than 70% students of color, according to a program document. The program has a higher graduation rate than CLA at 70%.

Evan Johnson, associate director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and departmental advisor for African American & African Studies, American Studies and the Comparative Race & Ethnicity Minor, developed the MLK Program’s curriculum and was a former academic advisor in the program.

The program serves as an advising space that connects approximately 1,250 students with advisors who have smaller caseloads and can better connect to their identities, according to Alexander Hines, the director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. 

Hines said helping students understand the meaning of their different identities is at the core of the program. The MLK Program is accredited by the Association for Black Cultural Centers and is the oldest in the country.

The program improved retention rates among CLA students, with 93% of first-year students returning for their second year, according to Hines. In the 2023-24 academic year, 40% of MLK students were admitted into the University’s Honors program.

Senior Academic Advisor and Departmental Advisor for the Chicano/Latino Studies Department Marisela Rodríguez-Gutiérrez is one of the academic advisors in the MLK Program.

“Our students are excellent, there’s nothing remedial about our office,” Rodríguez-Gutiérrez said.

The program includes a first-year experience course connecting program members with their peers, access to the MLK office space as a place to gather and an optional immersion trip focusing on the history of social justice initiatives nationwide. In 2023, the trip focused on the American South, bringing students together to see notable sites in civil rights history.

The program also created a dedicated living-learning community in Pioneer Hall allotting a $3,000 scholarship.

Academic Advisor Sonyna Castillo said social justice is important to the program’s legacy.

“We’re here because of student activism and that’s what we uphold,” Castillo said. 

Peer advisors are another key aspect of the program, easing students’ transition into their freshman year. MLK peer advisors are students at the University who work during orientation to help students register for classes. 

Tejiri Ogbemudje and Brianna Jackson both enrolled in the MLK Program’s first-year experience and now work as peer advisors.

“It made being at a PWI (predominantly white institution) feel a lot less like a PWI,” Jackson said.

Johnson said the first-year experience course provides many opportunities for students to share their experiences.

“It felt like more of a deeper connection because it gave us some of the tools to speak about our various identities,” Ogbemudje said.

The course mainly covers historical context in the first semester and transitions into group discussions and presentations where students can speak about their experiences and identities freely.

“There’s activism in telling your story and listening, it’s really about working towards the beloved community that the Reverend Dr. King was mentioning,” Castillo said.

Programs like the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE) and the President’s Emerging Scholars program (PES) also aim to serve underrepresented University communities, but approach the mission from a different angle, Johnson said. While the MLK office focuses on civil rights, MCAE and PES focus on belonging.

The current overarching goal is for the MLK Program to expand to being University-wide instead of just encompassing CLA, Hines said.

“I think we have a dynamic team of academic advisors, staff and peer advisors that are promoting the holistic support of students,” Hines said.

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  • Olivia
    Jun 28, 2024 at 8:14 am

    The MLK program is so great and everyone is so personable. I’m really grateful that Evan is my advisor! As a first-generation WOC, it makes me feel way more confident about school knowing that I can ask things that I’d usually think are “dumb questions” and get support with no judgment.