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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico often touts its tri-cultural diversity: a white minority population, a Hispanic majority and nearly two dozen Native American tribes.
But the African-American community there is teenie, almost invisible. That makes it more difficult for black students at the University of New Mexico, where four out of five African-American men don’t graduate.
The Fuller family moved their six children to Albuquerque to take advantage of New Mexico’s in-state scholarship programs. Jason Fuller left all of his high school friends behind in his hometown of Detroit, a city that’s more than three-quarters African-American. His new home is a dusty, sprawling city in the middle Rio Grande Valley, where African-Americans make up just 3 percent of the population.
"I was not particularly happy with the move, for the most part, just everything, the food, the clothing, the climate, everything is entirely different," Fuller said.
Fuller moved into a dorm at the University of New Mexico’s main campus and it didn’t take him long to go looking for a familiar face.
"Within two days I found out where African-American Student Services is located," he said.
Cultural isolation makes college hard, especially when combined with being a first generation college student or working full- or part-time like the majority of UNM’s undergraduates.
And it may account for the startlingly bad graduation rates for African-American men here, among the worst in the country.
That graduation rate is a number that organizers of MOCA, UNM’s new Men Of Color Alliance, want to change.
The pilot program was launched last year to study the needs of students of color, find out what works to fill those needs, and then make it happen at UNM. Student ethnic centers are on the front line.
"It is a culture shock and it is kinda hard to adjust when you are walking around and you don’t see people that look like you," student Christina Foster said.
Foster’s home away from home is UNM’s African American Student Services. She’s a dual psychology/history major, minoring in Africana studies. During finals week, she said the Center is jammed with cramming students.
"You’ll see everybody just workin’, workin’, and then all of a sudden somebody plays some music on YouTube and everybody’s kinda relaxin’ for like 30 minutes and then we get right back to work," Foster said. "You can’t do that other places."
And Foster knows. She grew up in Albuquerque and now works at the Center helping students resolve scheduling problems, find cheap textbooks, and navigate that culture shock.
Foster said it's especially hard for black men here, who tell her they are often the targets of suspicion and racial profiling. Sometimes they just want to talk -- about things they feel they can’t talk about with other people.
"We’re all we got, it’s really what it comes down to," Foster said.
In a survey commissioned last year by UNM’s president to examine the racial climate at UNM, respondents from all levels of the university community said African-Americans are excluded, isolated, and ignored and not an integral part of the University’s identity. The report's recommendations include elevating the Africana Studies program to full departmental status and inventorying university programs serving African-Americans. It won’t be easy.
"It's like a big aircraft carrier and to try to have us move and change direction, it's monumental," said Christopher Ramirez of the University's Division of Equity and Inclusion and a project assistant with MOCA.
"We have a changing student population, that’s not new, it’s something we’re newly embracing, I think," Ramirez said.
Ramirez said the program is trying to work smarter, maximize resources, and connect existing programs.
And things have already changed for the first round of eight MOCA participants. They were paired with upperclassmen mentors, attended events and took part in an end of the year retreat. And their GPAs went up. All of them.
MOCA co-facilitator Patrick Barrett says the minimally funded pilot project works. Now, the trick is to expand the program, reach out to more students, and make sure they get all the way to commencement day.
"Most important, we need the administration to back us. Because we have men at the very end of this journey and they're getting cut short and the major reason is funding," Barrett said.
Division of Equity and Inclusion officials say they'll be looking for additional funding, and MOCA organizers will be watching for the university to put more skin in the game. As Barrett said, to drop out because of money kind of defeats the purpose.