African-American Alumni Energize Students

Black alumni returned to campus Sept. 8-10 for a weekend of formal and informal meeting with black students and College administrators. Called the Gathering, the weekend was designed to energize the student community and to launch a program of continuing involvement between them and black alumni.

The Gathering grew out of spring 1995 meetings between the African- American Alumni/ae Committee and black students. Students told alumni that their community wasn't cohesive and that many felt disillusioned and disaffected.

Senior Anna M. Glass says that before she enrolled at Oberlin she knew about the College's history of "producing top-notch students and creating a strong sense of community," but once on campus found that, while Oberlin was still "producing quality students, we no longer had that sense of community. Our community . . . was struggling to find itself. We had no leadership and no direction."

Oberlin's black students "have a serious morale problem, and it's justified," says Carlton Eversely '78, noting such issues as low retention rates among black students, especially males. "That's not just a problem at Oberlin, it's a national problem," he says.

The committee left in the spring feeling that the students "needed jump starting," says committee member Mary Andes '91. She spoke with campus offices, such as Student Life and Services, Admissions, and the Alumni Association about how alumni could help. "One of the best ways alumni could help was to make a connection," Associate Director of Admissions Jonathan Williams told Andes.

The Gathering's formal events included a panel discussion patterned after a town meeting, to which all members of the College community were invited. Three students-junior biochemistry major Joy Williams, senior jazz studies major Neal Smith, and Abusua co-chair Ryan Maltese, a senior sociology and law and society major-spoke about their experiences, followed by six alumni (all former chairs of Abusua) who related their experiences as students as well as the impact Oberlin has had on their lives. Dean of Student Life and Services Charlene Cole '74 spoke at the end of the discussion period.

Students and alumni agree the Gathering was successful. Oberlin's black students "needed a road map and incentive," says Ray Davis '85. "I think they got both." Eversely felt a "burgeoning sense of expectation" among the students. Glass says "the Gathering was one of the most positive things to happen to our community, not only because [alumni and students] finally got the chance to talk, but because we connected."

The Gathering was a first step toward a more comprehensive program to connect black students and alumni, says Andes. The African-American Alumni/ae Committee is working with campus offices to set up concrete means for alumni to help meet students' needs. The committee will continue to involve students in the planning, says Andes, by listening to their ideas and talking with them about how the ideas fit into an overall support strategy.

"It's easy to throw out ideas and solutions," she says. "It's more difficult to really hear what students are saying."

Melody R. Waller '98

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