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Addressing concerns of black students in 
their academic experiences in a 
predominately white university - 
Lessons from qualitative institutional research 
Neil Currant – Oxford Brookes University 
@ncurrant
Some Theory
• Sense of belonging has been identified as an important 
factor in persistence and success for all students (Thomas 
2012). 
• Under-researched area of the literature (Hausmann, 
Schofield & Woods 2007) 
• Understanding minority students’ sense of belonging is 
key to understanding their experiences at university. 
(Hurtado & Carter 1997) 
Belonging
• ‘fit’ - focuses on the student’s perceived cohesion within 
a group (Bollen & Hoyle 1990). 
• Peer, department, course, student society etc 
• ‘contact’ - the relational interactions with others 
characterised by stability, emotional concern and on-going 
positive contact (Baumeister & Leary 1995). 
• Peer, personal tutor, lecturer 
What is sense of belonging?
• ‘Onlyness’ captures the experiences of many black 
students at institutions where they may be the only person 
from their ethnic group in their class (Harper 2009) and 
the sense of isolation and discomfort this may bring. (fit) 
• For black students, their staff and peer interactions are 
more likely to be ‘cross-racial’ whereas as white students’ 
interactions are more likely to be with individuals who 
are also white. (contact) 
‘Onlyness’
Background context
Proportion of students 
83.70 
% 
16.30 
% 
White 
BME 
80 
70 
60 
50 
40 
Attainment at Oxford Brookes 
University: Proportion of 1st & 
2.1 degrees (home, f/t, UG students) 
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 
Good completion BME 
Good completion White 
Background – Oxford Brookes
• In depth, open-ended interviews with twelve BME 
undergraduates about their experiences at university. 
• The interviews were conducted by two BME 
postgraduate research students. 
Brookes research
• Strategies for Belonging 
1. Post-racial 
2. Academic 
3. Advocacy 
Findings
1. Post racial - 
“It’s not like I’ve got to make sure I put it in there so people 
know I’m African or anything like that, it doesn’t matter…I 
don’t want it to be the first thing people see, or think, is that I 
am black, so I tend not to want to go towards them groups 
(Afro Caribbean society), that’s the reason why I didn’t go to 
X University ‘cos when you go there it’s quite a big black 
group, which is fine, I’m not saying you don’t want to hang 
out with your own people, but don’t make it out so that 
everyone needs to know that we’re black.” (Student 3) 
Ways of belonging successfully
2. Academic 
“…people will judge you (for being black), people 
will look at you by what you do … get good 
grades, that is when you get the respect … the 
truth is you cannot measure yourself with a white 
person in this country, what a white person needs 
to do, you need to do double to be able to be 
recognised.” (Student 4)
3. Advocacy 
“I think it does lead me to when I get given 
assignments, all I want to do is race because 
that’s what they’ve missed out…I think me 
being so clued up about race issues is a form 
of self-protection.” (Student 1)
Strategy Fit Contact 
1. Post-racial Yes with wider 
university activity; an 
‘engaged’ student. 
Less important than fit 
2. Academic With similar peers on 
course, less important 
than contact 
Requires good contact 
with academic staff. 
Academically ‘engaged’ 
3. Advocacy With like minded peers, 
e.g. through SU. 
Politically ‘engaged’. 
Social / peer contact is 
more important than 
academic contact. 
Strategies: fit & contact
Actions for belonging
“There were students from all parts of the world so most of the 
lecturers give us an international perspective.” (student 5) 
Helping ‘fit’ 
versus 
“What happens is they (lecturers) think because you are African 
you always bring in Africa to things. Just as you raise your hand 
and they say to you “yes I know in Africa” (in sarcastic tone).” 
(Student 9) 
• Positively acknowledge different cultural 
contributions in the classroom.
“they’re very aware of gender, very aware, very great at 
that and that pleases me, like that’s really good, but they shy 
away from race so much. And, you know, even in my classes 
like cultural and linguistic diversity, they shy away from 
race” (Student 1) 
• Acknowledge race / ethnicity plays a role in the dynamic 
of the class. 
• Confront ‘questionable’ student attitudes. 
• Reflect on your own cultural ‘essentialism’ and consider 
the message you convey about race / ethnicity. 
Helping ‘fit’ 2
“once you are admitted you can easily get lost in the system…Are 
student support staff trained to deal with this area” (Student 10) 
“I went to counselling a bit last year which was terrible…She was 
sort of shutting down the way I was thinking about it…I’d like to 
have someone, as a black person or as a mixed person to be able 
to talk to, to relate to these kind of issues.”(Student 1) 
• Support staff and personal tutors who are experienced in 
diversity issues. 
• For example, new lecturers tend to draw on their own 
experiences of university (or from what they see around 
them in the department) which can be very different to 
the student they are advising. 
Helping ‘contact’
• We have to acknowledge and be sensitive to race and its 
impact on the student experience. 
• We have to reflect on our own cultural biases. 
• We might need to use positive action to address the 
attainment gap issue 
Conclusion

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Belonging - Black students' experiences at a predominately white university

  • 1. Addressing concerns of black students in their academic experiences in a predominately white university - Lessons from qualitative institutional research Neil Currant – Oxford Brookes University @ncurrant
  • 3. • Sense of belonging has been identified as an important factor in persistence and success for all students (Thomas 2012). • Under-researched area of the literature (Hausmann, Schofield & Woods 2007) • Understanding minority students’ sense of belonging is key to understanding their experiences at university. (Hurtado & Carter 1997) Belonging
  • 4. • ‘fit’ - focuses on the student’s perceived cohesion within a group (Bollen & Hoyle 1990). • Peer, department, course, student society etc • ‘contact’ - the relational interactions with others characterised by stability, emotional concern and on-going positive contact (Baumeister & Leary 1995). • Peer, personal tutor, lecturer What is sense of belonging?
  • 5. • ‘Onlyness’ captures the experiences of many black students at institutions where they may be the only person from their ethnic group in their class (Harper 2009) and the sense of isolation and discomfort this may bring. (fit) • For black students, their staff and peer interactions are more likely to be ‘cross-racial’ whereas as white students’ interactions are more likely to be with individuals who are also white. (contact) ‘Onlyness’
  • 7. Proportion of students 83.70 % 16.30 % White BME 80 70 60 50 40 Attainment at Oxford Brookes University: Proportion of 1st & 2.1 degrees (home, f/t, UG students) 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Good completion BME Good completion White Background – Oxford Brookes
  • 8. • In depth, open-ended interviews with twelve BME undergraduates about their experiences at university. • The interviews were conducted by two BME postgraduate research students. Brookes research
  • 9. • Strategies for Belonging 1. Post-racial 2. Academic 3. Advocacy Findings
  • 10. 1. Post racial - “It’s not like I’ve got to make sure I put it in there so people know I’m African or anything like that, it doesn’t matter…I don’t want it to be the first thing people see, or think, is that I am black, so I tend not to want to go towards them groups (Afro Caribbean society), that’s the reason why I didn’t go to X University ‘cos when you go there it’s quite a big black group, which is fine, I’m not saying you don’t want to hang out with your own people, but don’t make it out so that everyone needs to know that we’re black.” (Student 3) Ways of belonging successfully
  • 11. 2. Academic “…people will judge you (for being black), people will look at you by what you do … get good grades, that is when you get the respect … the truth is you cannot measure yourself with a white person in this country, what a white person needs to do, you need to do double to be able to be recognised.” (Student 4)
  • 12. 3. Advocacy “I think it does lead me to when I get given assignments, all I want to do is race because that’s what they’ve missed out…I think me being so clued up about race issues is a form of self-protection.” (Student 1)
  • 13. Strategy Fit Contact 1. Post-racial Yes with wider university activity; an ‘engaged’ student. Less important than fit 2. Academic With similar peers on course, less important than contact Requires good contact with academic staff. Academically ‘engaged’ 3. Advocacy With like minded peers, e.g. through SU. Politically ‘engaged’. Social / peer contact is more important than academic contact. Strategies: fit & contact
  • 15. “There were students from all parts of the world so most of the lecturers give us an international perspective.” (student 5) Helping ‘fit’ versus “What happens is they (lecturers) think because you are African you always bring in Africa to things. Just as you raise your hand and they say to you “yes I know in Africa” (in sarcastic tone).” (Student 9) • Positively acknowledge different cultural contributions in the classroom.
  • 16. “they’re very aware of gender, very aware, very great at that and that pleases me, like that’s really good, but they shy away from race so much. And, you know, even in my classes like cultural and linguistic diversity, they shy away from race” (Student 1) • Acknowledge race / ethnicity plays a role in the dynamic of the class. • Confront ‘questionable’ student attitudes. • Reflect on your own cultural ‘essentialism’ and consider the message you convey about race / ethnicity. Helping ‘fit’ 2
  • 17. “once you are admitted you can easily get lost in the system…Are student support staff trained to deal with this area” (Student 10) “I went to counselling a bit last year which was terrible…She was sort of shutting down the way I was thinking about it…I’d like to have someone, as a black person or as a mixed person to be able to talk to, to relate to these kind of issues.”(Student 1) • Support staff and personal tutors who are experienced in diversity issues. • For example, new lecturers tend to draw on their own experiences of university (or from what they see around them in the department) which can be very different to the student they are advising. Helping ‘contact’
  • 18. • We have to acknowledge and be sensitive to race and its impact on the student experience. • We have to reflect on our own cultural biases. • We might need to use positive action to address the attainment gap issue Conclusion

Editor's Notes

  1. Include some quotes about recognising background
  2. This has consequences as we will see
  3. From a personal level I have learnt a lot form this project but looking back it shocks at how ignorant I was.
  4. Let’s stop pussy footing around when it comes to race / ethnicity / religion etc.