USF: Black role models wanted

Based on statistics from the state university system, I may soon become another USF graduation failure. First-time-in college enrollment numbers for black students enrolling at USF in 1998-99 showed only 13.37 percent had graduated within four years, one of the lowest percentages of all of Florida’s universities.

The six-year graduation rates fared no better, showing a 38.38 percent graduation rate for first-time-in-college black students enrolling in 1996-97.

Never mind that USF signed up more black students in the summer and fall of 2003 than any other state university, except the historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

Getting in is one thing. Getting out is another.

I became a first-time-in-college black student in 1999-00. Doing the math puts me on a course to graduation failure if I don’t receive my bachelor’s degree by next year. Whose fault is it that first-time-in-college black and Hispanic students get so detoured on the road to their diplomas?

Vice President for Student Affairs Harold Nixon told The Oracle this week, “Retention is everybody’s responsibility.” True, Dr. Nixon, but retention is only half the battle.

I never knew USF existed until my junior year of high school, circa 1998. That’s sad when you consider I grew up 80 miles north of this university, which was charted in 1956. Had my brother’s girlfriend not enrolled at USF, this school may never have entered my radar when I was applying for college. When I started school here, USF was slowly losing its reputation as the school of last resort; USF would take you when other universities denied enrollment, some said.

Admission administrators quickly raised the bar for entrance as USF gained more notoriety. But the double meaning for U-S-F — “You Stay Forever” — has hardly disappeared from students’ vocabulary.

I don’t blame USF because I’m on year five of a four-year degree. According to my own audit of my Student Academic Support System (SASS) report, I would have walked across the stage and shaken President Judy Genshaft’s hand during the spring 2003 commencement if I never withdrew from a single class and landed at least a “C” in all of them.

Why am I still here? I wish I could point to one thing then rewind to make sure I got out on time. I guess I could point to my SASS and look at all the Ws or Fs and Ds and calculate exactly.

What about the rest of the black and Hispanic population, which is also struggling to succeed at graduating, according to state numbers? Do we linger because we’ve yet to see what power a USF degree has for people of color in the professional world? Some of the most-famous USF students — not necessarily graduates — are white: Terry “Hulk” Hogan, Leo “melon-smasher” Gallagher and Drake Hogestyn, who plays John Black on Days of Our Lives. The only famous USF grad of color that pops into mind is Melissa Howard from MTV’s The Real World: New Orleans.

Howard’s father is black; her mother is Asian. If I sit and rack my brain or have this discussion with another person, the names of truly notable black and Hispanic graduates would surely leap from the brainstorming session. No disrespect to Melissa Howard, who wrote an article or two for The Oracle while she was a student, but she’s not what I consider “role-model material” for students of color.

Therein lies a step toward a solution: More USF graduates of color should wear their green and gold proudly. There’s always some form of intimidation when you think you’re going to be the first. If at least one person has blazed a trail before you, it makes the journey more bearable. Knowing that a USF graduate sits on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., gives the political science student a little more passion to apply him or herself and succeed.

There is no directory of successful USF grads of color. Maybe there should be. Until one is created, I urge those who exist to stand up and be counted as a success.

Kevin Graham is a former Oracle Editor in Chief.