The graduates wore traditional caps and gowns, but they didn't sit quietly awaiting their diplomas or form a solemn processional to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
They strutted, showcasing dance moves to a rap beat. They cheered Nigerian and Abyssinian dance troupes. They got to their feet for a rousing spoken word performance. They whooped as speaker after speaker reminded them of what they’d just accomplished.
“The statistics were against you, but you prevailed and I am so, so proud of you,” Sharee Hughes of the school’s African Student Programs told them.
The 76 participants in the recent Black Graduation ceremony at UC Riverside exemplified a striking achievement: The campus has one of the smallest racial achievement gaps in the nation. African Americans at Riverside graduate at rates similar to those of whites and Latinos and just below Asian Americans.
The six-year graduation rate in 2015 for students who started and finished at UC Riverside was 73% for blacks, 71% for whites, 69% for Latinos and 77% for Asian Americans, according to campus data.
Other UC campuses have higher black graduation rates. But in a study this year of 676 public and private campuses, UC Riverside ranked first in California and sixth in the nation in outperforming universities with similar student populations. The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said UC Riverside showed consistent success, with a 69.5% graduation rate averaged over three years (2012-2014), compared with an average of 48.4% at comparable universities, such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of North Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The University of Illinois at Chicago, the study noted, accepted similar students and more African Americans. But the black graduation rate at the Illinois campus was about 30 percentage points lower than Riverside’s, and the gap between black and white students in graduating from the school was nearly 20 percentage points higher.
“Their performance is amazing,” said the Education Trust’s Andrew H. Nichols, the study's co-author. “Other university presidents and provosts should look to Riverside to see what they’re doing to promote such success.”
Chancellor Kim Wilcox said there was no secret formula, but he ticked off several key approaches. Adequate financial aid helps “ease anxiety and frees students to be students,” he said. Diversity fosters a welcoming environment. Early interventions can arrest academic slides. And leadership opportunities help students feel empowered and connected to the campus.
“This is not magic,” Wilcox said. “This is about a deeper ethos of respecting people of all stripes and giving everybody who has the interest, aptitude and energy the opportunity to come and study and learn.”
Several black students said they chose UC Riverside because of its generous financial aid and its large and active African American population. The campus provides financial aid to 82% of undergraduates — and it sealed the deal for many students who at first planned to head to a historically black college.
UC Riverside enrolled about 1,200 black undergraduates last fall, making up 6% of the student body. Of the UC campuses, that’s a percentage second only to UC Merced, according to UC data. And though the proportion of black students at Riverside has declined over the last decade, administrators say one reason is that competition for high-achieving black students has intensified.
Since he took the helm in 2013, Wilcox has added 15 African American faculty members, with two more arriving this fall. He’s stepped up efforts to get faculty to mentor students of color and reached out to black community organizations.
“In my 37 years here, I have never seen this kind of effort to diversify the faculty,” said psychology professor Carolyn B. Murray, who is African American. “It’s actually electrifying.”
Angel Robinson, a freshman majoring in sociology, said UC Riverside’s diversity was a key attraction — especially after her experience with racist incidents at Berkeley High School, including an online lynching threat and a noose hanging from a tree.
“Coming here is a breath of fresh air because nobody cares if you’re black and there are so many people like you,” she said.
When Robinson’s grades plunged from a 3.8 grade-point average in high school to 2.3 in her first quarter at UC Riverside, she said, she connected with mentors, tutors and study buddies through the African Student Programs office. When her best friend died, program director Ken Simons helped her through her trauma. She developed leadership skills by organizing a forum on “body positivity.”
“Even though we have our fun, grades and education are super important and we all push each other to make it,” said Robinson, who has a black father and a Mexican mother.
The African Student Programs office, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, also spreads word about scholarships, internships, research opportunities, graduate schools and jobs. The office sponsors academic mentorships and connects students to such role models as acclaimed ballet dancer Misty Copeland and state appellate court Judge Richard T. Fields, the first African American judge in Riverside County. Simons and his team promote cultural events, co-sponsor the Black Graduation and oversee the Pan African residence hall, which is open to all students.
“We challenge students to be the best they can be and believe in them even when they don’t,” said Simons, who began working for the office in 1986, three years after he graduated from UC Riverside. “Whether this has anything to do with graduation rates, I don’t know. But it has a lot to do with them feeling empowered and inspired with a new sense of purpose.”
On a recent day at the office, several students sprawled on sofas or worked at tables, snacking, joking, laughing and chatting. One fretted about his C in an English class, while another beamed about acing an essay (“I got everything, not to be a smartass”).
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. looked out from a mural on the wall, near postings about internships and jobs.
“It’s home away from home,” said Nathifa Rose, who just graduated in media and cultural studies. She said she originally wanted to transfer to San Diego State but changed her mind after taking part in the African Student Programs’ mentorship endeavor, joining a black sorority and making friends as a campus orientation leader.
Dagem Befikadu, who just graduated in business administration, said UC Riverside helped him blossom from a quiet high schooler to a campus leader and an emcee for the Black Graduation.The son of Ethiopian immigrants, he is active in his black fraternity, and he pressed for improvements in African American admission and retention rates as a member of the UC Afrikan Black Coalition.
Some students said they hear the occasional racist comment. Others said the campus should do more aggressive recruiting.
But Alexander Wilson Jr., who in his commencement address urged his fellow graduates to use their education to lift the black community, said administrators have been responsive to concerns. When he and other students in 2015 led a march through campus to protest racism at the University of Missouri, he said, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs James Sandoval agreed to biweekly meetings.
Those regular discussions led to a series of campus workshops on cultural awareness and support for four internships for UC Riverside students to recruit more African Americans and other underrepresented minorities at local high schools.
“Our administration is open to listening, open to discourse,” said Wilson, the son of Ethiopian and Curacao immigrants who majored in history/administrative studies. “UCR … is definitely acknowledging the changing tide of America in the 21st century with its focus on so many types of different people with all kinds of lived experiences who bring so much to the table.”