An innovative new program is providing UT’s male Black and Latino students with greater opportunities for success.
Retention—that is, staying in college beyond the first year—is the crucial first step as a student moves from enrollment to graduation. At UT and nationally, retention rates for men of color are lower than those of any other group. The issues behind this retention gap are complex, but research points toward the creation of an engaging and supportive educational environment as the best way of addressing them.
UT is tackling retention concerns for men of color in part through the UT Success Academy, whose inaugural class of first-year students started this fall. The program sets out to smooth first-year Black and Latino men’s transition to the Volunteer community, developing their strengths and potential through a customized four-year framework that includes experiential learning, community building, and transformative experiences.
Aaron Dixon, the program’s inaugural director, said the UT Success Academy is a way for students to become the best versions of themselves while finding the proper resources necessary to reach their goals. “As a staff member who holds similar identities of those supported in the UT Success Academy, this position created an opportunity for me to connect with undergraduate men who are navigating a new environment for the first time in their lives and to help them understand that they have a bunch of people excited to see them win,” he said.
Dixon stresses how crucial it is to create an atmosphere for men of color to feel they belong. “It is important that we show our men of color that we are here to help them as they figure out who they are and who they want to be,” he said. “My job is to help them get there.”
Participating students begin and complete the entire four-year program with the same group. To help address financial pressures, they receive a renewable annual scholarship of $2,000 and funding for study abroad experiences.
Dixon said his favorite aspect of the program so far has been this semester’s fall kickoff week. “Students moved in 10 days before school started to become more familiar with campus and campus resources. As students filled the room, my soul was filled with gratitude and excitement that we were on our way. Students instantly gravitated towards each other and their peer coaches,” he said. “I could not have asked for a better start.”
In the future, Dixon hopes to see the academy’s students serving across campus as tutors, leaders of student organizations, researchers, mentors, and student workers. “By the time our current first-year students are seniors, we will have nearly 800 student participants in four cohorts. I hope to see students building connections with peers who have similar interests and experiences as them and flourishing academically,” he said.
Dixon intends for the academy to be a continuing source of support for students as they navigate college. “My hope is that the UT Success Academy helps our students call the University of Tennessee home,” he said.