Using a Sense-of-Belonging Approach to Support Young Men at Rochester Institute of Technology

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Members of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Men of Color, Honor, and Ambition initiative with Kevin McDonald (bottom right)

mcdonaldThe persistence, academic success, and graduation of college students are on the minds of college administrators and higher education researchers at institutions across the country. These elements are particularly salient when discussing students of color, but conversations surrounding the college success of this group often revolve around deficit-based approaches that focus on the challenges to educational attainment, the lack of preparedness, and the remedial support needed for this population to meet minimum institutional standards.

[Above: Members of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Men of Color, Honor, and Ambition initiative with Kevin McDonald (bottom right)]

Researchers Shaun Harper and Terrell Strayhorn provide refreshing research perspectives on the needs of students of color to succeed in higher education. Harper’s “Anti-deficit Achievement Framework” inverts questions commonly asked about educational disadvantage, underrepresentation, insufficient preparation, academic performance, and attrition. In his report, “Success in These Schools? Visual Counternarratives of Young Men of Color and Urban High Schools They Attend,” he seeks to examine the support systems and assets of those who have successfully navigated from K-12 and postsecondary experiences to advanced degree attainment and good careers.

Strayhorn’s research has explored students’ sense of belonging, or their perception of affiliation and identification with their university’s community, as a basic human need, akin to those in Maslow’s hierarchy. In his book, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students, Strayhorn discusses the feelings of marginalization, self-defeatism, obligation to family, and detaching oneself from one’s cultural background as some of the experiences of students of color. However, he also notes that participation in clubs, student government, and other group activities by these students creates positive environments, experiences, and feelings of being a valued member of society — which facilitates a sense of belonging in academic and social life on campus and ultimately contributes to their retention.

Given the growing body of data that reveals that women are outperforming men in college and the implications of this fact on men of color on predominantly white campuses, many institutions have created initiatives focused on the identification of supportive pillars for this constituency. Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) joined this effort three years ago with the creation of its Men of Color, Honor, and Ambition (MOCHA) initiative. This yearlong program is open to all undergraduate men in their second through fifth years of study, but it was created with an emphasis on men of color.

MOCHA focuses on the academic, personal, and professional leadership development of its participants while using Harper’s anti-deficit approach to academically and socially connect participants in ways that build their self-efficacy and create the sense of belonging Strayhorn identifies as crucial to student retention.

The initiative is built on five pillars.— ambition, achievement, integrity, service, and health and wellness — and it incorporates these pillars into the programmatic experiences of its participants. Each student is provided with two faculty and staff or local community leader mentors who meet regularly with their mentee and share life and career experiences. The mentors are matched by race and ethnicity or career interest.

In addition, in an effort to more meaningfully connect these young men to the local Rochester community, MOCHA partners with local nonprofit organizations and develops and implements strategies to meet the needs of each organization. These partnerships have opened these young men’s eyes to the needs of the community and spurred a desire in many of them to stay and work in Rochester after graduation.

The men are required to complete two Dale Carnegie executive leadership courses, which are focused on providing increased levels of confidence and developing important soft skills associated with desired T-shaped graduates and professionals (i.e., individuals who possess both subject matter knowledge and the ability to collaborate across disciplines).

Each semester, the men are required to meet regularly with professors in each of their classes and use three campus units that provide academic support. They also choose an accountability partner from within their cohort to support them and keep them focused, and they pledge to maintain a 3.0 GPA or better during their year of participation (although a 2.5 is all that is required to apply for participation in the initiative). If any of the men fall below a 3.0, the group is charged with helping their MOCHA brother reach and surpass the 3.0 threshold. MOCHA men who participate at high levels throughout the year receive professional attire from a local men’s clothing store.

To date, program participants boast a cumulative GPA well above 3.0 and a 100 percent graduation rate. Most important, the increased sense of belonging of the participants has created a familial association — a brotherhood, if you will — and that support system has played an integral role in their self-efficacy. RIT is now fully committed to incorporating more anti-deficit and sense-of-belonging-based efforts into additional initiatives that support students on campus.●

Kevin McDonald, EdD, JD, is the vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information about the MOCHA initiative, visit