The hustle and bustle of the UW – Milwaukee Student Union did nothing to distract Miela Fetaw from her passionate recounting of the experiences she has faced as an African-American woman, journalist and student at UWM.
Fetaw, a senior double majoring in Journalism and Global Studies, has been working toward her degree since 2014. She was originally accepted at both NYU and Columbia but settled on UWM for the lower tuition. Just last summer, she spent two months in Texas at the African American Literature and Culture Institute and the Nate Parker Film Institute, and she just recently boarded a plane to Japan to expand her reporting experience for two weeks.
“It’s hard to be a black journalist these days,” said Fetaw. “We are forced to put our identities on the back burner to report stories on our communities so that we can be unbiased. But it’s hard to be unbiased. You’re asking me to put my identity aside to report on an issue that society has already stereotyped.”
A recent study released by the National Center for Education Statistics has shone a dismal light on the issues that UWM faces in terms of closing the gap between the graduation rates of white students and students of color, as well as keeping students of color enrolled in school.
Fetaw and other successful African American students at UWM illustrate that, despite UWM’s rating as one of the 21 worst universities in the country for black graduation rates, people are overcoming those odds and succeeding. Still, that doesn’t minimize the very real issues. Fetaw stresses that she believes the administration does not support black students at UWM.
The African American Student Academic Services (also known as AASAS) and Black Cultural Center (or BCC), along with a handful of other UWM organizations, recently sponsored the 2017 African American Graduation Reception in the Wisconsin Room of the UWM Student Union. The line of students graduating circled more than half of the room, painting a positive picture of the numerous success stories that the media is missing.
Fetaw has worked hard to make it to her senior year. Raised in Italy, her family is from the small East African country Eritrea. After migrating to the United States when she was six, she moved to Milwaukee from Atlanta, Georgia and enrolled in classes at UWM.
“I come from a long line of freedom fighters and goat herders,” said Fetaw. “You don’t need an education to tend to livestock or to pick up a rifle. My parents literally came from nothing – nothing in the sense meaning that my parents were the first in their families to receive college degrees, let alone go to high school.”
Fetaw’s grandparents hadn’t completed school beyond the first or second grade. Her parents began attending classes in their late 30’s, all while raising three young daughters and learning in a language that was completely foreign to them.
“Sankofa is a Twi word for ‘go back and get it,’” said Fetaw. “My parents defied all odds. My drive comes from knowing where I come from and from ensuring that I can give my family all that my parents gave to me.”
Fetaw, a current intern at TMJ4, has been busy throughout her years at UWM; she has won the Roy W. Howard Reporting Fellowship, a photo and digital fellowship, and numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Wisconsin College Media Association, and a student Emmy with a group of other UWM students.
Fetaw isn’t the only student working hard to transcend the numbers and pave their way to success – Darien Yeager, a junior majoring in Journalism and minoring in Business, came to UWM from Whitefish Bay High School and really pushed hard to make it through the summer AOC Program that UWM required him to take to enroll in regular classes.
“I learned a lot in those remedial classes, how to work hard and work with my teachers,” said Yeager. “So when I started my freshman year, I got all A’s and it was such an amazing feeling. I felt like, ‘yeah, I can actually do this, I can get good grades in college.’”
Yeager is the president of the Minority Media Association, which focuses on issues involving diversity in the media. He was also invited to the National Honor Society his freshman year, and has consistently kept his GPA above a 3.0 since enrolling in college, which he says he is proud of since he struggled so much in high school. He hopes to inspire other people in similar situations, to show them that they can succeed if they work hard and keep driving toward that degree.
“Education is so important,” said Yeager. “I’ve wanted to give up so many times this semester, but I keep waking up and coming back. It is so important for the future. Education is the one thing that nobody can take away from me, or from anybody.”
Yeager’s decision to enroll in college had a lot to do with his brother dropping out of Marquette, and Yeager’s desire to not follow the same path.
“I think it’s dangerous for black men to be out there without a degree,” said Yeager. “I don’t want to become a number, or fall in to the idea of another black life wasted. I think everyone has talent, and I think you can find it in school. I don’t want to waste it by falling in to that number.”
Jessica McBride, senior journalism lecturer at UWM, has taught both Yeager and Fetaw.
“In addition to being talented natural writers and excellent reporters, both Miela and Darien are leaders on campus and in our department,” she said. “They will go both far in journalism and life.”
The statistics: UWM has some work to do
According to “A Look at Black Student Success,” a report released by The Education Trust, only one in five African American students who enroll full-time at UWM graduates in six years, leaving the completion gap between white and black students at 24.3 percent. Although UWM proudly boasts about being the most diverse school in the UW system, it’s clear that there is plenty of work that needs to be done in terms of closing that gap between white and black student graduation rates, which is approximately 19% lower than the average for other universities with similar demographics.
“Being black is a challenge in this city but also in this institution,” said Fetaw. “Diversity doesn’t start when you put black people in schools; it starts when you keep black students in schools.”
UWM campus climate, the schools’ location and the open-access acceptance rates are a few of the issues that Fetaw feels UWM needs to work on.
“UWM is an open access institution, so the acceptance rates are very high,” said Fetaw. “The Milwaukee public school system has failed students. When students don’t have the resources or knowledge they need, they don’t succeed in a college environment. How do they expect kids to succeed when they are enrolling in college with a ninth-grade reading level?”
So what is UWM doing to close that gap? According to a statement released in response to The Education Trust’s report rating UWM so poorly for African-American student graduation and retention rates, it is the university’s “greatest priority” to help students succeed.
“Many of our students come from Milwaukee, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation,” the statement reports. “The link between economic privilege and educational success is well-documented. Many of our students must take time out from school to work, reducing our six-year graduation rate. College preparation is another challenge, which is why UWM has partnered with the Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee Area Technical College on M3, an initiative started in 2015 to increase student success at every level.”
UWM Provost Johannes Britz also weighed in, assuring concerned students that they will not be losing their multicultural resource centers, as recent rumors amongst students and faculty have suggested. Instead, the school will be essentially combining the resources of the multicultural resource centers into the Office of Central Advising, which will offer more advising opportunities to students both academically and on a personal level.
“We don’t assign students based on race; we assign them based on academics,” said Britz. “By adding more advisors, it will free up the time of the multicultural advisors to holistically advise the students that are sent to different UWM schools [of education] after they decide to declare.”
Although the administration has put a lot of focus on outside sources like finances, family-related situations and lack of preparation from the high school level contributing to low retention rates, some believe these rates stem from other, more internal sources.
According to Dr. Gary Williams, Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Intercultural Research, Educational Policy and Community Studies, the issues that the administration is citing are only part of the issue as a whole.
“The campus climate is not always the most hospitable to students of color,” said Williams. “Their fellow classmates and some faculty are not always very forgiving or kind which doesn’t make for a great experience in school. Students who are not as successful and who leave UWM with an unfortunate experience aren’t going to tell their peers to come to this institution.”
In 2011, there were 502 African American freshmen enrolled at UWM. In 2017, that number has dropped to 246, and has been dropping nearly every year since 2011. That’s a nearly 51% decrease. You can view the numbers here. So, what is contributing to this significant drop in enrollment?
Gary Cooper-Sperber, an advisor in AASAS, feels that there are a multitude of reasons that African American students leave UWM. Finances, the college culture, and the lack of people of color that hold high level staff positions, just to name a few.
“When students of color come to a predominately white campus and see very few staff members that look like them, it looks like the campus doesn’t care about people of color,” said Cooper-Sperber. “They claim to have diversity, but they don’t practice what they preach in their hiring standards.”
Cooper-Sperber recently presented a PowerPoint at WACADA, the Wisconsin Academic Advising Association, highlighting ways to better advise black and Latino students.
A Successful UWM Alum’s Thoughts on the Issue
Despite the negative media surrounding UWM at the moment, there are many successful stories that go unheard. Tony Atkins, a 2013 UWM Journalism, Advertising and Media Studies graduate, is a broadcast reporter for WHBQ – FOX in Memphis, Tennessee. He has traveled around the country working for different media organizations including WPXI – NBC Pittsburg and the Austin American Statesman – Newspaper in Austin Texas, and attributes much of his success to his experiences at UWM.
“I thank the university,” said Atkins. “It helped me to become a better person. I’m doing well in the real world, thanks to the university and being able to be exposed to so many different things. UWM put me in the right position to be successful.”
Atkins has won the Edward R. Murrow award as part of a collaborative class project, as well as multiple SPJ awards and was a UWM Post sports editor during his time at school. Although Atkins has praise for UWM, he also understands the struggle that other minority students face, and thinks there are things that need to be considered when tackling the issue of graduation rates, including incompetent preparation by public high schools and an administration that doesn’t make students feel accepted at this institution.
“At the end of the day, they [students] feel like they don’t belong,” said Atkins. “If UWM isn’t invested in diversity but claim they are so diverse, people are eventually going to stop buying in to it. People just need to feel included; the university needs to make sure students feel included.”
Atkins isn’t the only one who feels this way; Darien Yeager also had thoughts about the campus climate at UWM.
“There’s this vibe here that I get that kind of brings me down,” said Yeager. “Everyone is in their social corner – diverse but segregated. If you are a black student and you’re in a class with only two other black students, it certainly feels intimidating. Nobody is being “mean” outright, but you almost feel like you have to work harder to get the same results as your white counterparts. You might not raise your hand in class because you don’t want to come off as dumb, so you ask after class.”
So, what are some possible solutions that UWM could do to address the issue and try to close the gap in graduation rates? According to Dr. Williams in the BCC and Gary Cooper-Sperber in AASAS, there are many steps the administration could be making in addition to their current plans involving the Office of Central Advising and M3 initiative. Aside from introducing a more diverse staff and trying to make students feel more welcome and accepted, the school could think outside the box and invest in more signage around the city.
“Look around the city,” said Dr. Williams. “There isn’t much in terms of advertising UWM to the city of Milwaukee. It gives the impression that we don’t want you.”
In addition to signage, Dr. Williams and Cooper-Sperber also urge the administration to re-focus their efforts on accommodating working students by offering more night and weekend classes, as well as finding better financial options for students struggling to afford tuition.
Miela Fetaw’s views focus more directly on the administration and the lack of concern she feels they have toward addressing the poor graduation and retention rates of African American students.
“There are certain people in this administration that are untrustworthy, that say one thing and do another,” said Fetaw. “They may say they care for diversity, but they aren’t showing it. I have not seen any action plans geared toward addressing the black graduation rates, or lack thereof. When you do not provide the resources that we need to function at a level synonymous to our white counterparts, you are telling us that you do not want us to do well.”