The new year brought a new milestone in my life. I graduated from Wayne State University, with a master’s degree in communications/journalism.
That fact, possessing a Wayne State degree as an African-American student, makes me something of a rarity, as Bridge's coverage of the struggles of African-American students at Wayne makes clear.
As expected, my program was quite competitive and demanding, with top-notch professors guiding our way. Unlike what many may know of undergraduate programs, where specific courses are required, my master's schedule did not impose general course requirements. Once one enters "post-grad" work, the focus is more concentrated. Presumably, one becomes more invested in completing their program since he/she is in one’s chosen field of interest.
This is not always the case with African-American undergraduate students at Wayne.
Even though I attended the university as a graduate student, I was able to take a few high-level undergraduate courses with juniors and seniors who, for the most part, seemed focused on completing their degree. While it was hard to tell how fellow classmates performed, on the outside looking in, many seemed well-prepared, on time with assignments and active in class participation.
However, as the semester wore on, I noticed in one of these courses that the ranks were thinning. Though I do not know the exact reason for this, the class was demanding, which might have led to the attrition. Students who stopped coming may have felt overwhelmed by the class load and the professor’s expectations.
At some point, I noticed that one student in particular, who sat next to me, no longer came to class. I was told she was asked to leave for plagiarism.
Even though plagiarism is an obvious offense to professors and to people in the academic world, it is not always so obvious to some -- especially to some inner-city students who never learned the skills of proper citation. I do not know if this was the case for the student who was asked to leave, but plagiarism is just one example where certain undergraduate students and university expectations seem to clash.
University standards are high, but it seems incoming students from lower-performing Detroit area high schools do not necessarily know what to expect -- or what is expected from them.
Another incident that stands out to me, with regard to graduation rates, was when I was working on a story for a journalism class. The article centered on student procrastination and its consequences.
I asked one student, who was surfing Facebook at the undergraduate library (UGL), about his study habits. He responded with the typical shoulder shrug and the classic “I don’t know.” Maybe he did not know. Maybe he did not care, or maybe he did not understand the correlation between school success and job success.
While this student could not provide a straight answer, it stood out to me that he was on Facebook at a university computer. As I looked around, I noticed many of the students at computer tables were on similar social media sites. In addition, the library was noisy, in contradiction to what one expects from a library.
My experiences at the UGL are few because it was not a place conducive to my academic purpose. While the UGL offers invaluable resources, such as the writing center, scheduled group classes and enclosed study areas, for the most part, it serves as a place for social gathering -- more like a student union.
When I walked through, there always are students studying, but many others were on Facebook, playing games or participating in other social media. Without question, students need "down time," but it would appear these students were not taking advantage of the resources before them.
For many of us, graduate school is a way to pursue our passion on a deeper level and to carry out pertinent research within our chosen field. In many cases, graduate degrees open the door to better job opportunities, higher salaries. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to learn that education was essential. here were no discussions about it; I knew that when I finished high school, I would go to college -- and finish. I grew up with doctors and other professionals, and a similar academic background was expected of me too.
While WSU is a large, accredited, research university, it is also a commuter school -- one that serves, in part, an inner-city population. Many Wayne students are first-generation college attendees who may not understand what is expected, which may speak to its low graduation rate as well.
What divides those who earn degrees from those who do not is hard to say. I believe it is a combination of challenges, including the mind-set of the student. Some people are raised with the mind-set that, more often than not, education opens doors to opportunity. Some grow up with role models to pattern their own lives after. With that mind-set in place, they start as freshmen and hit the ground running.
On the other hand, those without family precedent and the skills needed to perform have much further to go. These students may have the drive and motivation, but lack the roadmap or support network. And yet other students have neither the precedent nor the drive -- making their entry to the college the likely beginning of a detour, not a launch into life.
Dana Hollowell is the first holder of the Center for Michigan’s student fellowship. An award-winning journalist, she has experience in the broadcast and print media. Hollowell grew up in the Detroit metropolitan area.