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October 1, 2015

Retain African-American students by mentoring them, speaker advises

Alfred Moyé

Alfred Moyé

“Students tend to look first to their faculty as mentors, and institutions could do more” to train mentors, advised Alfred Moyé, keynote speaker at the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Sept. 25 African-American student retention symposium.

“All mentors are teachers but not all teachers are mentors,” he added.

Moyé used his own life to illustrate the best way to be a mentor. He received his master’s degree in chemistry from Pitt and was a chemistry professor and vice chancellor of student affairs here. Today he is a Pitt emeritus trustee and a member of the boards of visitors for the Dietrich school and the School of Information Sciences.

But Moyé was born poor in small-town Maryland, growing up at first in houses without indoor plumbing or electricity and being bused past his local elementary school to attend a two-room building labeled “for colored children,” he said.

His experience with effective mentoring began when he was 14 and his family moved to Washington, D.C. There he attended a much larger all-black public school with strict rules and high academic standards, and a principal who displayed the attitude: “You will succeed despite yourself, and we are here to make that happen.”

“I don’t remember giving college much thought, but I always knew I would go to college,” Moyé recalled. While no adult talked to him about college directly, he explained, they modeled the behavior, employing black teachers with PhDs and introducing the students to others who had gone to college.

At West Virginia Wesleyan, being poor alongside white students who were poor created a bond that bypassed race. While Moyé had never participated in sports before, at a white friend’s urging he tried out for the track team, and later joined the college choir. “These activities made me feel more a part of the campus,” he said.

He was mentored by several faculty, including one who hired him as a lab coordinator and instructor, helped train him to be a TA and insisted he attend the University of Michigan for graduate school, where Moyé began his post-graduate studies. Another mentor helped Moyé move to Pitt to complete his graduate work.

As a dorm counselor in the Towers, he quickly learned “the value of engagement” — participating in school activities, receiving mentoring from faculty — in retaining students. “Research now shows when students are engaged, they stay,” he said.

He brought that lesson to the corporate world. While working for Hewlett Packard designing and running career advancement training programs for their engineers, he noticed that no African Americans at HP were taking advantage of this training. He recalled cautioning them: “You’re keeping your nose to the grindstone while your colleagues are working toward the future.”

To those attending the Pitt retention seminar, he said: “I know what we’re trying to do here and I really applaud it. But I really wonder how well the faculty know of all the opportunities here.” He encouraged participants to let faculty know “how they can make life better for all students, particularly African-American students.” It starts with simple steps, he said: Learn their names and call on them during class. “I managed the classroom so the hand-wavers didn’t dominate,” Moyé said. The young black people in his class “couldn’t hide among the 99 students.”

He said the key to retaining African-American students is modeling how to maintain a sense of self while encouraging growth and change.

“Mentoring is not telling them what to think,” Moyé said; rather, it is a method of drawing out students’ own thoughts, dreams and plans and helping them come to fruition.

Some of the best advice he has heard on mentoring: “The first thing you should do when someone comes in with a question is to not answer.” Instead, say, “What options have you considered?”

Personal attention is crucial, Moyé said: “I felt that my best teaching was done in the office, in the small groups or individually.” Some of the important lessons he learned stemmed from counseling those who received bad grades that they were not failures. He told them they were simply not meeting the expectations of this class and this professor at this time  — and that there was room to try again and to improve.

“If you are an adult on a campus, you are a role model,” he concluded. “The choice is what sort of role model you want to be.”

—Marty Levine    

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 3

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