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Surprise, Sensemaking, and Success in the First College Year: Black Undergraduate Menís Academic Adjustment Experiences


by Shaun R. Harper & Christopher B. Newman ó 2016

Background: Much has been written about Black undergraduate menís out-of-class engagement and social experiences, identity development, participation in intercollegiate athletics, and college enrollment and completion rates. Too little is known about their academic readiness and first-year college adjustment.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to understand Black male studentsí academic transition experiences in the first college year, with a particular emphasis on how they resolved academic challenges with which they were confronted.

Setting: This study was conducted at 42 colleges and universities in 20 states across the United States. Six institution types were included: private liberal arts colleges, public research universities, highly selective private research universities, public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities.

Participants: The sample was comprised of 219 Black undergraduate men, mostly juniors and seniors, who maintained high cumulative grade point averages, were extraordinarily engaged in a range of student organizations, held multiple leadership roles on campus, cultivated meaningful relationships with faculty and administrators, participated in enriching educational experiences (e.g., study abroad programs), and earned numerous merit-based awards and honors for their college achievements.

Research Design: Qualitative research methods were used in this study. Specifically, phenomenology was used to understand what Black male students experienced in the first college year and how they experienced the transition phenomenon.

Data Collection and Analysis: Individual, face-to-face interviews were conducted with all 219 participants. Each interview was 2-3 hours. Moustakasí (1994) process for phenomenological data analysis and Harperís (2007) trajectory analysis technique were used to analyze data collected for this study.

Findings: Two thematic categories of findings are presented in this article. First are reflections from students who experienced turbulence in their transitions from high school to higher education. Being underprepared for the academic rigors of college, the surprising mismatch between academic effort and first-year grades, the racial composition dissimilarities between their high schools and college campuses, and feelings of cultural misfit were factors to which participants attributed their initial adjustment challenges. The second category includes insights from achievers who transitioned seamlessly to college. They attributed their successful starts to strong academic preparation, prior experiences in demographically comparable educational environments, participation in summer bridge and college transition programs, and academically profitable relationships they cultivated in student organizations.

Recommendations: This article ends with several suggestions for helping Black undergraduate men adjust more seamlessly and resolve surprising academic transition issues encountered in the first college year.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 6, 2016, p. 1-30
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19967, Date Accessed: 12/11/2017 11:48:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Shaun Harper
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    SHAUN R. HARPER is the Clifford and Betty Allen Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. He also is Executive Director of the USC Race and Equity Center. His 12 books include Advancing Black Male Student Success from Preschool through Ph.D.
  • Christopher Newman
    University of San Diego
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER B. NEWMAN is on the faculty in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego. His research focuses primarily on Black studentsí college experiences and outcomes, as well as students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
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