Summer 2021 Issue
Sankofa a model for inclusive student success
By Eliza Hunt
Black and Latino males who enroll at a four-year college are more likely to leave without a degree than any other group of students.
Stockton University has been fighting that trend with a concerted effort to reach out to men of color and provide the support and mentorship they need to succeed. Stockton University’s success rate with minority males exceeds the national average, but with only about half of all minority males graduating, targeted efforts are expanding.
The Sankofa Retention Initiative began in 2015 to directly combat significant drops in second- and third-year retention rates among Black and Latino men. First-year students entering the program are mentored by peers and a faculty/staff member. The name Sankofa comes from the Akan people of Ghana and means “to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” It symbolizes learning from the past to inform the future and the quest for knowledge.
“Sankofa was and is the answer to intentionally aiding men of color in their academic success and has been striving to do just that for the last six years,” said Darius Edwards, coordinator for Inclusive Communities and Social Justice Education, who also serves on the Sankofa Retention Initiative’s advisory board and as the head of the program’s current restructuring.
“In spaces where folk who identify like you are underrepresented or underserved, finding a group of individuals who affirm your experiences and identities while simultaneously challenging you to do and be better is life-changing,” Edwards said.
Sophomore Criminal Justice major Nasir Belfiore from Lakewood said having a mentor has meant a lot to him.
“It’s important to me to be involved in mentorship programs because being that we attend a primarily white institution, connecting and building relationships with other men of color on campus creates a sense of unity,” Belfiore said. “Although I prefer to handle situations and tasks on my own, I find it relieving at times to have a support system to lean on when tasks become overwhelming to handle alone.”
Each year, 20-25 men are involved in the Sankofa Retention Initiative. Under the Vice President for Student Affairs Christopher Catching the program is expanding, with plans to hire 13 paid mentors.
“With paid student mentors and the advisory board in place, Sankofa is on its way to be truly transformational,” Edwards said.
Stockton alumnus John Gray ’92, an instructor of Organizational Leadership at the University, is a Sankofa mentor and knows from personal experience how important it is to have support. He found it at Stockton in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, which helped him when he started college as a former foster child, with no family support.
“I went straight to the EOF office,” said Gray, who went on to write his dissertation on how mentorship programs positively affect academic achievement for Black men. “I think that if these young people have a place to go, somebody to talk to, that makes all the difference.”
The state EOF program, which targets first-generation and historically minoritized students, began in 1968 and has always been part of Stockton. This year more than 125 male and female students are participating on both the Galloway and Atlantic City campuses.
“One thing that makes Stockton unique is its historical and symbiotic relationship with the Educational Opportunity Fund Program,” said Catching, who was himself an EOF student in college and said the program and its mentoring inspired him to become an educator. “Many of Stockton’s retention strategies and student services were piloted and initiated with the EOF Program.”
As the Stockton community becomes increasingly diverse, with more than a third of undergraduate enrollment identified as students of color, the University continues to respond. Under Catching, the Division of Student Affairs was reorganized three years ago to focus on inclusive student success. These new, diverse programs reach out to all students through the Office of Academic Achievement, Student Transition Programs, Student Success Scholars, First Ospreys, TogetHER and Themed Living Communities. A new Multicultural Center is scheduled to open in Fall 2022.
The goal of these programs is to both educate and engage all students so they can become active members of the Stockton community and take full advantage of all the University offers. Belfiore said it has worked for him.
“I would advise younger students starting at Stockton to focus primarily on building connections with like-minded people around them, in addition to faculty on campus,” Belfiore said. “I’ve found my college experience to be much more enjoyable after I connected with people like (Director of Residential Education and Student Services) Marques Johnson, so building relationships with faculty and staff is a must.”