McLaurin Conference Aims to Equip Minority Students for Success
Annual event tackles issues such as retention
D’Andre Fisher and Trey Moore knew the numbers were dismal. Statistics showed that only 37 percent of African-American males who began work on bachelor’s degrees would finish that work and graduate.
Both graduates of the University of Oklahoma, and both African-American males who beat those odds, the pair decided they needed to figure out a way to help fellow black males change what, for many, was an inevitable outcome of leaving campus without a degree.
Fisher, who now serves as special assistant to the vice president of University Community, and Moore, who is associate director for Diversity Enrichment Programs and coordinator for Student & Alumni Engagement, along with others, founded the Developing Black Males Leadership Conference on the OU campus. Now in its third year, the conference aims to improve enrollment, retention and graduation rates of African-American males by empowerment through cultural connection, brotherhood and ensuring students are better prepared for the rigors of college life.
For Moore, that begins with reversing a two decades old trend that has seen fewer African-American enrolling on campuses nationally.
“African-American males are coming to college at lower rates than everyone else and they are dropping out at higher rates,” Moore somberly notes.
That’s the first hurdle conference organizers set out to tackle. The conference is part recruitment and outreach for prospective students. However, its main focus is solidly set on retention and success.
"We wanted to empower African-American males and give them the tools to come to campus and thrive on campus, to actually stay culturally connected while they are here on campus,” Moore explains.
That cultural connection, Moore and others believe, is an important component in establishing a foundation for success among under-represented student populations. Moore says experience has shown conference organizers that providing a safety net of community, a safe place if you will, is a powerful tool in succeeding in college.
“If you can stay connected to your community, your culture, you’re much more willing to stay when things get hard,”Moore says. "That can be your safety net. We want to show these young men that there are people who look like them, who come from the same backgrounds that have thrived here at OU. It’s basically connecting them with those types of students.”
"It is vitally important for the attendees of the conference to begin thinking of ways they can be leaders towards one another, for themselves, around campus and even for future freshman who may attend the conference” Fisher points out. "By putting themselves in a leadership role, they gain the confidence to succeed in college and become valuable mentors for future students.”
Fisher adds the first year of college is important for students to develop a "strong launching pad for the remainder of their collegiate career.” He notes such hinderances as starting out with a low GPA can put further academic and emotional stress on a student, inhibiting their success.
"We pride ourselves on keeping the young men accountable for grades and attendance and they even hold each other accountable for studying, either together or individually,” he says. "Those first two semesters of college are the hardest because it is a major transition and life change. The key is to learn good habits and practice them from the start which is what the conference teaches."
Moore says although the focus of the conference is on developing a strong sense of community among minority students and ensuring those students have a safety net of other racially and culturally similar friends and mentors, there is also a strong emphasis on being part of the of the larger OU community.
“We don’t want them to stay in their own bubble,” he explains. "One of the tenants we all share is stepping outside your comfort zone and daring to be different. We show them things that not only African-American students are doing, but things students from all cultures are doing.
“We want them to be immersed in the their cultural component of the university, but also the university as a whole.”
The conference is proving to have a major impact on student success. The retention rate for the conference’s first class, from freshman to sophomore year, stands at 91 percent. With the cumulative grade point average of 3.1, that class is performing above the national average in freshman GPA.
Current OU student, Tian Grant, is among those who have attended the previous two conferences. Moore recalls recruiting Grant from Tulsa Edison High School. Grant was planning on attending a NCAA Division II school in Kansas on a football scholarships. However, after attending the conference, he changed his mind.
“He had a feeling after the conference that OU was the place he wanted to be,” Moore says. "When you here stories like that, you know you’ve made an impact.”
Moore says this year’s conference will expand its reach to a number of other underrepresented racial and cultural communities, including Hispanic and Latino students.
For the first time, the conference’s name will honor OU’s first African-American student. George McLaurin broke the OU color barrier in 1948 after applying for admission to the doctoral program in the College of Education, directly challenging the state’s current segregation laws. McLaurin held a master’s degree in education from the University of Kansas and had taught for 33 years at Langston University before retiring in 1948.
State segregation laws mandated that African Americans attend Langston Univeristy, while whites could go to either the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University). To comply with the provisions requiring equal access to educational programs, the state offered funding for African Americans to attend schools in nearby states for programs not offered at Langston. McLaurin challenged this law and, by court decision, was admitted to the OU.
In order to comply with state separation laws, President George Lynn Cross arranged for McLaurin’s classes to be held in classroom with an anteroom. By sitting in this side room, away from white students, McLaurin could attend the same classes but still be segregated. Special seating areas were created in the cafeteria and at sporting events, and separate restroom facilities were designated to insure continued segregation.
McLaurin challenged this continued segregation, taking the case to the United States Supreme Court. In 1950, the Supreme Court, in George W. McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education, ruled that segregation "handicapped him in his pursuit of effective graduate instruction." The decision began the process of tearing down official barriers to racial integration in Oklahoma higher education.
George McLaurin ultimately left the university after only two semesters. His case, however, would prove a key precedent in the national fight against segregation, paving the way for the landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which established that separate was inherently unequal in all levels of education.
“Not a lot of people know he was actually the first African-American to attend school here,” Moore points out. "Finding a way to honor him hopefully will spur students to look into his story and the history of the University of Oklahoma. We were one of the first universities in this part of the country to start admitting African-American students and we need to be proud of something like that.”
This year’s conference will be held April 14-17 on the Norman campus, and is being sponsored OU’s Office of University Community, headed by Vice President Jabar Shumate.
The conference also will be one of the first beneficiaries of a new fundraising platform at OU. Thousands Strong will host numerous OU projects in need of funding. The Thousands Strong website will officially launch February 29 and will connect supporters with programs to which they can give directly, track the progress of funding and become closely involved with the success of programs and initiatives they care most about.