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Make it hard for them to leave

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

African-American students at the University of Virginia (UVA) have the highest graduation rate, at nearly 90%, of any public university in the country. Nationally, it’s estimated that just 44% of black students finish their public university degrees within six years.

So why does this one school perform so much better? Aside from highly disciplined students and strong institutional support, the difference is leadership.

Here are perhaps the two most important leaders for UVA’s black students today:
  1. Sylvia Terry, associate dean of African-American affairs. She grew up in small-town Virginia, the only child of two teachers who pressed their students to go to college. Now Terry does the same. To fight the pressures bedeviling her students, including weak preparation and college debt, Terry dispenses hugs, advice and uplifting poetry. She also expects her students to perform.

    Terry inherited her missionary zeal from her parents. They whisked students off on campus tours. On the blackboard of her mother’s English classroom were these words: “Don’t make excuses. Just make good.”

  2. Robert Bland, the first black undergraduate to earn a degree at UVA. The African-American students who came right after him used Bland as their inspiration. One student told the dean he’d look up at Bland’s window and see the light always on. “If Bobby Bland can do it, I can,” he would think, and the thought eventually turned into a catchphrase.
Bottom line: It’s not enough to get people in the door. To keep them, provide strong orientation, ample financial incentives, a network of support and validation at key milestones along the way. As Terry puts it, she wants to make it hard for students to leave.

—Adapted from “At U-Va., a Dean Making a Difference,” Susan Kinzie, The Washington Post.

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