Reuben Pierre-Louis was moments away from leaving the University of Connecticut. As one of only 600 or so black male students at a college of 20,000, he found himself lost in a sea of white faces.
“Wow, it’s been a real struggle,” Pierre-Louis says. “I’ll be perfectly honest, it’s been a real struggle. Everything was just like a blur, I didn’t know anybody … It’s like being dropped in the middle of nowhere, I was like, ‘OK I’m here, here I am. I don’t know anybody.”
There were subtle insults and sideways glances. White students would often refer to him when they needed the “black perspective.” UConn professors noticed Pierre-Louis’ struggle and reached out to him and offered some guidance.
“To be honest, if I didn’t get that initial support, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Pierre-Louis says.
Many colleges struggle to keep black men from dropping out. The University of Connecticut is doing better than most, and now it’s taking a step further by creating the Scholars House.
“It’s a living and learning community that will be a section of a dorm, and house about 50 students,” says Prof. Erik Hines, director of the Scholars House. “It aims to help black males with class work, and provide them with mentorship, counseling, and prepare them for graduate school.”
But these efforts have drawn attention to longstanding racial tensions on campus that have some students wondering if this new program would do more harm than good.
The Scholars House is short for “Scholastic House of Leaders who are African American Researchers and Scholars.”
“This space is really about community, and validating their experiences,” Hines says.
Any male student can apply to live at Scholars House, but because its main goal is to help black men; there’s been debate about whether this is some form of sanctioned segregation.
UConn student Kailey Townsend comes from a mixed family, but she identifies as African-American.
“This is a time to unite the campus, this is not a time to say ‘hey, let’s bring up this great idea that could be great.’ But this could be something that could potentially be harmful,” Townsend says.
She says she doesn’t want to see racial tensions get worse on campus. There have been several hate crimes reported at UConn over the years. Racist graffiti and vandalism incidents happen just about every year.
Ashley Woodson is the treasurer of the Critical Race Studies and Education Association. It’s a collective of professors seeking racial justice in schools. Woodson says UConn is doing the right thing with Scholars House, but these kinds of living situations can sometimes reinforce racial stereotypes.
“In some instances, we see that it does perpetuate this idea that all black people invariably have the same cultural experience, that they should or do have the same political commitments, that they have the same academic needs, and we just know that that’s not true,” Woodson says.
UConn’s Prof. Hines says the Scholars House has been modeled on other successful programs across the country.
“We’re bringing the community together to have these conversations about men of color and about all of our other student groups on campus who may experience marginalization,” he says.
Research shows when black males get additional support that they more frequently reach out to students of other races. This, more often than not, tends to improve race relations.
Both professors say the goal is to work toward an education system where programs like the Scholars House are not needed at all.