Newswise — Washington, DC (July 18, 2013) – Black students who attend predominantly white universities struggle to acclimate to what they perceive as a different culture from their own, where they feel a lack of intercultural understanding, a new study finds. The study, “Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education through a Relational Dialectics Perspective,” was published online today in the National Communication Association’s journal Communication Education.

“Our data revealed that there are still major challenges for African-American students at predominantly white institutions of higher education,” said the study’s lead author, Jake Simmons, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Tex. “They feel tension between integrating into the dominant culture while honoring their own culture and black pride.”

Some of the 67 black students surveyed at three major universities said they felt they could not survive in the white world without altering their language or culture, a change they found undesirable, Simmons and his colleagues reported.

“As a group, African-American students wanted to assimilate into their respective universities, but at the same time they expressed a need to maintain cultural independence by segregating from them,” the authors wrote. “The need to segregate was born out of a fear that the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.”

The study took place at one private and two public universities in the Midwest and Southwest, whose student populations were made up of only 4.5 to 8 percent blacks. Thirty-nine black undergraduate students participated in focus groups, and 28 black students participated in individual interviews, with the number of male and female students almost even. Participants were asked about their quality of life at their university, their program needs, the presence of racism on campus and the effects of their experiences as minority students.

Surveyed students reported feeling different from their white peers in thought, language, dress, classroom behavior and socializing, according to the article. This finding, Simmons commented, suggests that these black students “see themselves as cultural visitors.”

Study participants reported a lack of understanding about their own culture from non-blacks at the university. The lack of understanding led to the students feeling singled out in the classroom. Some students reportedly felt frustrated when they alone were responsible for educating whites about African-American issues. They also felt offended when they were asked to share their thoughts only about African-American topics.

In addition, some students felt a lack of social support from their families. Of the 67 subjects, 52 were first-generation college students whose family members often did not understand the student’s university experience or their goal of a college degree, the investigators reported. Because some of these parents did not want to visit the university, Simmons’ group wrote that university personnel might need to go to the communities in order to include parents of first-generation college students in university relations.

First, however, administrators of predominantly white universities must admit that their relationships with black students need attention, Simmons said.

“Academia must implement curricular and administrative changes to foster a more positive university experience for African-American students,” he said. “Predominantly white universities must act as relational partners with African-American students to create a more intellectually and culturally rich experience for students, faculty and administrators.”

He suggested that universities should encourage white students and students of color to jointly develop multicultural programs that aim to improve understanding between different ethnicities and races. In addition, he and his co-authors recommended training for instructors on including cultural diversity in their courses and how to address racial tensions.

In addition to Simmons, co-authors of the article, “Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education through a Relational Dialectics Perspective,” include Russell Lowery-Hart, Ph.D., of Amarillo College, Amarillo, Tex.; Shawn T. Wahl, Ph.D., of Missouri State University, Springfield, MO; and M. Chad McBride, Ph.D., of Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.

A PDF of this embargoed study is available upon request.

###About The National Communication AssociationThe National Communication Association (NCA) advances communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. The NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, the NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems.

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