Umoja creates community for black students

Clyde Phillips, Umoja coordinator and EOPS counselor, speaks to Téara Kent, a 21-year-old African American studies major, in Phillips’ office in Watson Hall Tuesday.

As Marcqus Chandler stood up to leave Clyde Phillips’ office, Phillips asked him if he would have enough time to pick up his son.

The business and graphic design major and single father assured Phillips he’d be alright and said goodbye with a hug.

“Thanks Clyde,” Chandler said before he left the room, illustrating the deep bonds of their student-mentor relationship far better than the everyday phrase would otherwise reveal.

For many of the roughly 300 black students at Orange Coast College, finding a place to call home in a sea of over 20,000 students can be a challenging endeavor.

“Umoja provided an easy transition and helped me find a place that was familiar and comfortable,” Chandler said. “It gives the minority student a voice to be filtered out into the community.”

When Phillips brought the Umoja program to OCC in 2010, he sought to provide a learning community for minority students with an emphasis on improving the retention and academic success rates of black students as well as enhancing their cultural and educational experience.

“It’s a powerful program because it offers minority students an opportunity to get on the right track,” Umoja coordinator and Extended Opportunity Programs and Services counselor Phillips said.

Umoja, the Kiswahili word for “unity,” is a statewide consortium unique to the California Community College system. Umoja was founded in 2006 when Phillips helped the program develop on a statewide level. Presently, the program is active on 57 universities, a nearly tenfold increase from its 2006 origins.

Phillips works with about 12 students to further their educational goals by “focusing on the whole entire student” and formulating a plan for success that extends beyond the classroom walls. Phillips acts as the program coordinator, counselor and teacher to the students. He works closely with instructors in the math, social science, history and English departments and with admissions and records faculty to tailor educational plans for Umoja students.

For Chandler, the community aspect of Umoja is a testament to the program in and of itself.

“It’s almost like creating a blueprint specifically for me,” Chandler said.

On a community college campus that has the potential to disavow a truly personal connection with its students, Chandler says Umoja grants students like him an opportunity to feel attended to.

The counseling environment that Umoja offers to its students is a far cry from the counseling woes that often plague non-Umoja students. According to Chandler, the relationships developed within the Umoja community can offer a leg up over a potentially cold interaction with a non-Umoja counselor.

“It’s like a telemarketer with a script as opposed to someone who I have a personal connection with,” Chandler said.

According to Phillips, the goal of Umoja is to close the achievement gap for black students through what Umoja calls intentional and deliberate counseling. Part of that includes Phillips’ “porch talks” that aim to push students in the right direction, where the traditional constraints of counseling dissolve and create space for a more upfront and casual discussion of everything from educational plans to career goals.

Though Umoja is a relatively new program, its success rates are growing as rapidly as the program itself. The statewide program currently serves 4,000 students with goals to increase to 10,000 students by 2019. Umoja students are 25 percent more likely to continue their community college education, more likely to have a higher GPA and are ready for transfer-level work in an accelerated time frame.

Students who are part of Umoja must sign a contract which includes an assessment of their academic abilities and requires them to be financially disadvantaged. Phillips said the Umoja program, which falls under the EOPS umbrella, seeks to bridge the gap with the educational system.

“This is a system that was obviously not created by us or for us,” Phillips said.

Throughout his 28-year tenure at OCC, Phillips said it is common for a student to come to class and then abruptly leave due to OCC’s tendency toward being a commuter school. Often his students come to him about hostile classroom environments, spanning from interaction with students to instructors.

According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of black Americans in Orange County clocks in at 2.1 percent of the total population. With OCC’s population showing less than 1 percent representation, Phillips said it’s more likely for one of his students to leave a racially-charged hostile incident unreported than tell an instructor who doesn’t look like them.

“They say if you want to know how the hunt went, ask the lion,” Phillips said.

That’s where Phillips and Umoja steps in. Phillips said a main component of what he teaches his students is to be aware of unconscious bias, to eliminate discriminatory norms that people have been systemically and generationally conditioned to believe. It is that same awareness that can prove to be a key to success.

“Even though there are some of us that get through (the system), there are many of us who do not,” Phillips said.

Outside of the Umoja program is the Umoja Club, which students can join freely. It has no financial requirement and focuses instead on academic need. According to Phillips, who also serves as the club’s adviser, the club provides an on-campus environment for students to feel comfortable.

The club plans fundraising and events in the Multicultural Center like last semester’s largely successful “From hip-hop to bebop,” an event presented by University of Southern California music professor and staunch Umoja supporter Ronald McCurdy.

For Phillips, Umoja is about connecting students to their ancestors on a spiritual and emotional level.

“It’s about teaching them (students) to stand on the shoulders of those that came before them,” Phillips said.

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