A Place of Their Own Helps Black Students Tune In to Academics

Northeastern University's African-American Institute supports minorities in their adjustment to campus life

THE John D. O'Bryant African-American Institute at Northeastern University here grew out of the militant, student-led wing of the civil rights movement.

In 1968, a small group of black students presented the university with 13 demands, including the establishment of such an institute. Northeastern's administration, initially hesitant, decided to honor the demands.

But militancy is not what's keeping the institute going in the 1990s. Demographics, more than politics, is behind Northeastern's continued support for this program, according to John Curry, the university's president.

One-third of the students entering this large private university in the next century are going to be nonwhite, says Mr. Curry, and the African-American Institute has taught the school a lot about how to welcome minorities and launch their academic careers. The current student body, with 25,546 students working toward undergraduate and graduate degrees, is 13.5 percent minority.

``Basically, the institute introduced me to a lot of new people - it helped me make the transition from high school to college,'' says John Youte, a sophomore from Cambridge, Mass., across the Charles River from Northeastern's Back Bay location. Mr. Youte is of Haitian heritage.

Marjorie Bernadeau, another student with roots in Haiti, says the institute's Project Ujima (Swahili for collective work and responsibility) helped her navigate the freshman year at Northeastern. The project includes language and study skills, weekly workshops on financial aid and career options, and individual counseling. ``When I came here I was so confused,'' says Ms. Bernadeau. ``Now I'm an English major, and I'm hoping to go to law school.''

Anthony Maurice Williams, a junior in pharmacology from what he calls ``a rough part'' of Brooklyn, N.Y., praises the institute's basic training in study habits. ``It organized study sessions - three hours a night. You had to sign in and out. You signed a contract,'' he says. That discipline, together with a chance to meet and get encouragement from black, male intellectuals for the first time, ``helped me establish myself as as a college student,'' Mr. Williams says.

The opportunity to learn more about African culture is a key benefit of the institute, says Cheryl Owens, a native of Boston. Lectures and exhibits on African, African-American, and Caribbean history and art are held regularly.

Community service also rates high at the center - renamed a year ago to honor the late John D. O'Bryant, the first black chairman of the Boston School Committee and a longtime administrator at Northeastern. ``They really have instilled this in us - `You enter to learn, you depart to serve,' '' Ms. Owens says.

Kim Graham, a psychology major, works with children at Boston's Tobin School, many of whom come from the run-down Mission Hill housing project. ``You've got to try to help people when they're young,'' she says. Speaking of help, she would like to see the institute revisit the 13 demands that led to its founding and put more emphasis on financial aid and scholarships. That's the most pressing need today, Ms. Graham says.

Does the extra support already given black students at the institute give them an advantage over others? Some of those interviewed note that counseling and other services offered here are available through the university to all students - though the institute's services are, admittedly, quicker and more personal.

These students don't see the institute as solely for African-Americans. A number of Hispanic students frequent the center. White students occasionally drop by for cultural events or simply to deliver something. But they have a tendency to ``turn around and go away fast,'' says Andre Jones, who is in his ``midler'' year at Northeastern. (The school's co-op work program means students typically take five years to graduate, and the third year is the ``midler.'') ``I try to make them feel more welcome,'' says Mr. Jones.

That would please Charles Willie, a sociologist at Harvard University who has followed the development of black cultural centers on campuses since their beginning in the late 1960s.

``If there has been any failure, it's that many of these centers have not recognized that they have to be open to people unlike the prevailing population there.'' There ``ought to be places whites can join up and learn how to be a minority,'' he says.

That's part of laying ``a foundation for diversity,'' in Mr. Willie's view. But another part, he says, is providing ``a place for minority people to retire to and lick their wounds before taking on the university again.'' In that regard, he says, institutes like Northeastern's have been important in helping blacks succeed at college.

Beyond the issue of involving whites, what about other ethnic groups who might want their own institutes? ``Latino students would like to see a similar institute for them,'' Curry says, and Asian students could be next. ``We're thinking of the possibility of a multicultural center to allow people of all ethnicities to work together,'' the Northeastern president says.

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