Alma College Responds to Diversity with Detroit Project

Detroit Edison School A1 Aug 13

DETROIT EDISON SCHOOL ACADEMY students visit Alma College last November. They are shown with Denelle Brown, Alma College’s director of diversity and inclusion (lower right).


Every college across the country is facing the challenge of creating diverse student campuses, and the fall of affirmative action makes it a more difficult yet undefeated task.

Michigan colleges are not an exception even as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University face their own share of diversity challenges with declining Black enrollment.

But one college is trying to respond to this challenge by recruiting more Detroit students.

Alma College just received a $175,000 grant from the McGregor Fund to make a college education a reality for qualified high school students from low-income families in the Detroit area.

  According to Denelle Brown, director of diversity and inclusion at Alma College, the McGregor Partners in Education program will focus on student retention as well as recruitment, with college graduation the result of successful retention.

  “Increasing the enrollment and persistence of economically disadvantaged and first-generation students from Detroit is only one measure of how we will evaluate the success of this program,” Brown said. “Our goal is to engage students in their college education, help them develop positive relationships with other students and faculty, and equip them with the skills to be successful after college graduation and have a positive impact in their communities.”

During an interview, Jeff Abernathy, Alma College’s president, said diversity as a key part of college success is unavoidable.

“We have to make some progress. We’ve been talking about diversity and have not made the progress we would like to see. This is a major part of our strategic plan and goal at Alma,” Abernathy said. “In think everyone has diversity in mind. But with the many conversations about the commitment to diversity, there has been a lack of real substantive actions to make change.”

Abernathy said part of his plan is to look at schools that have changed their outreach in ways that have made a real difference in the lives of the students and the communities where the schools are located.

“We need to actively seek out that diversity through partnership. For us this Detroit project is absolutely key. We know best we can tell is go to our core competency and we believe with this partnership in Detroit we can make a real difference.”

Laura von Wallmenich, chair of Alma’s English department, said improving student writing before they are enrolled is a major component of the project.

“As a small liberal arts college that offers small classes and close student-faculty interaction, we are invested in helping students from Detroit succeed at the college level,” von Wallmenich said. “We are focusing on writing because that’s what Detroit teachers in conversation with us have identified as a high need for college readiness.”

  Students enrolled in the program will be designated “Campbell Scholars” in honor of Alma College graduate and trustee David Campbell, the longtime president of the McGregor Fund who died July 7.

  Building on Alma College’s partnership with Michigan Future Schools (MFS), which supports nine college-prep schools in Detroit, and the college’s experiences with the King-Chavez-Parks mentoring program, the project will focus on three strategies for retaining Detroit students:

 • Creating a first-year community of Detroit students enrolled as Campbell Scholars at Alma College. — The Campbell Scholars will participate in group-building activities and workshops and begin building relationships with peer mentors during a three-day pre-orientation prior to the start of the fall term. Workshop topics will include financial planning, understanding college expectations, study skills, time management, academic success skills, diversity inclusion and identity development.

 • Collaborating with MFS teachers to improve student writing. — Faculty from the Alma College English department will work with MFS teachers to enhance high school curriculum that prepares students for writing-intensive courses as well as to learn from the high school teachers how best to bridge the gap between high school and college for these students.

 • Offering a college-level summer course to MFS sophomores and juniors. — Offered in summer 2015, the class will involve sessions on the Alma campus as well as in Detroit. The class, to be developed collaboratively by Alma and MFS teachers, will be designed to take advantage of the learning environments offered by both cities.

  Earlier this year, Alma College entered into a partnership with MFS that provides scholarship support for Detroit Edison Public School Academy students who meet admission requirements. The partnership was one of the 100 commitments announced last January as part of the White House Initiative to expand access to colleges for low-income students. The grant will fund activities for two years as a pilot project with MFS, with the goal of expanding the initiative to other inner-city schools in Detroit.

  Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. E-mail


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