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Giving her best - and then some
'It's my place to make a difference,' says African American Student Development coordinator Nzingha Dugas

| 02 March 2005


"We know that diversity - all types of diversity - makes the learning experience much better and much more fulfilling for students," says Dugas.(Wendy Edelstein photo)
While today's campus forum on diversity underscores Berkeley's stepped-up efforts to address issues of inclusion, Nzingha Dugas, the newly appointed African American Student Development (AASD) coordinator, confronts the problem on the ground every single day.

AASD is one of five offices in the Multicultural Student Development unit (part of the Undergraduate Education division) that affirm individual and collective experiences and encourage students' intellectual achievement and involvement in campus life - primarily through academic and multicultural activities.

Dugas' central charge is to ensure the academic success and graduation of African American students, in addition to preparing them for graduate school or identifying professional opportunities. "What's most important is letting students know we're here and speaking to their concerns," says Dugas. Those concerns are numerous, according to a phone and e-mail survey of 50 African American students who graduated in spring 2004. Berkeley's black students can feel isolated, have encountered subtle forms of racism and stereotypes from non-black faculty and students, and suffer from the dearth of other African American students and faculty members on campus. Current trends are not encouraging: Of the 3,671 Berkeley freshmen who enrolled in fall 2004, only 108 (2.94 percent) were African American.

The experience of Berkeley's African American students mirrors Dugas' own as an ethnic-studies major at San Francisco State University 20 years ago. "I can still remember being the only black person in a class," she says, reflecting on the alienation that spurred her involvement in "every student group I could be in." That same level of over-commitment can be found among Berkeley's black students. Before taking her new position, Dugas had a 13-year stint managing programs and leadership workshops for undergrads and grads in the Graduate Assembly, where she frequently saw black student leaders who were "overwhelmed." She decided to pursue the AASD position, she says, because "I really want to help make a difference for black students and the campus at large." To that end, Dugas typically puts in a 13-hour day.

Dugas notes that when she ventures out on Sproul Plaza, it's not unusual to sees a solitary black face in a sea of 200 students. Because of the small number of African American students on campus and data that indicate that they often feel like they don't belong here, Dugas knows she faces challenges. But these are challenges she is prepared to address. "One major task I'd like to accomplish is to help more black students find a 'comfort zone' on campus," she says.

Some African American students report that they get passed over when students in large lecture classes are asked to form small groups. "When students are required to self-select, they tend to choose other people they think they'll be comfortable with," offers Dugas.

In January, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Christina Maslach e-mailed deans and department chairs with suggestions on ways for them to help create inclusive small groups in large classes (teaching.berkeley.edu/classroom_groups.html), requesting their assistance in disseminating the information to faculty and graduate-student instructors. Though it's too soon to ascertain the impact, Dugas plans to solicit feedback from students on the success of the effort.

Planning in process - stay tuned

Dugas, who has been in her new position only since January, will be spending the next few months on strategic planning. Her approach begins with a simple but essential step - listening. "We want students to tell us what they need, so they'll be more inclined to participate," explains Dugas, who intends to create student outreach teams by drawing from a variety of student organizations.

She is also excited about her plan to assemble a cross-disciplinary academic advisory team, so that she can stay apprised of African American students' classroom progress. A dramatic change in classroom attendance, for instance, might signal that a student is grappling with problems and has not asked for help. "Early intervention can make a significant difference in students' academic success," Dugas notes. "My hope is to take a holistic approach, which would include looking at all aspects of the students' academic experience."

Part of Dugas' five-year plan includes assessing AASD's resources to determine what it will need to make a lasting impact. For Dugas, evaluating results means tracking the students AASD serves and identifying educational outcomes during and after their time at Berkeley. "If we have good evaluative information, we can continue to improve our services," she says. Finally, Dugas says she would like to build a collaborative relationship with community-based organizations that share her vision.

Fortunately, Dugas is not in the struggle alone. The five offices in Multicultural Student Development are working together to build the unit's resources. "This is a really a collective environment," says Dugas. "What we hope to accomplish is to support our target agendas as well as to reach out to others, because diversity, excellence, and success are things that benefit everybody."