Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here…

August 20, 2014

The Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has among the largest undergraduate major populations of any African American Studies program in the nation without a graduate degree program.

Whereas thousands of students have enrolled in African American Studies courses since the undergraduate degree program’s inception in 2003, only a handful of these students actually declared African American Studies as a primary or secondary major.

“Students loved the professors in our department as well as the diverse course offerings, especially the special topics courses exploring the intersections of gender, politics and race. Unfortunately many students came across these exciting upper division courses in their junior and senior years. Much too late to begin a new major or program of study” says Dr. Aashir Nasim.

The number of students majoring in African American Studies never had exceeded 33, falling well short of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) productivity standard of 48 majors matriculating through the program each year.

Dr. Nasim, who completed his first year as chair during the 2013-2014 academic year, says, “It’s a very high standard. A standard that few programs like ours actually reach. In fact, there are institutions with nationally ranked graduate programs in African American Studies that don’t have that number of undergraduate students matriculating. Nevertheless we viewed this a challenge to meet, and said ‘Why not African American Studies at VCU.”

Why not, indeed! VCU’s Department of African American Studies accepted the challenge and this fall their undergraduate major enrollment has more than exceeded SCHEV’s productivity standard. And they don’t appear to be anywhere close to being done with enrolling new majors.

“It’s been a very involved process since the summer of 2013. The department’s curriculum chair (Dr. Vivian Dzokoto) and I developed and implemented several initiatives as part of our strategic plan. Major enrollment increased slightly later that fall compared to the previous fall, by approximately 22%. However, once the major initiatives related to revamping the curriculum, responsive student advising and student recruitment were in place, we saw our major enrollment numbers increase by 366% since fall 2012.”

Today, there are 84 undergraduate majors in African American Studies at VCU. And later this fall the department expects to have more than doubled the number of undergraduate majors established as the SCHEV productivity standard.

“We’re extremely fortunate to be in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, where senior administrators value what we’re trying to do in this department. They support our efforts to grow the program. And, equally as important, they support our efforts to ensure that every student in our program is afforded a high quality academic experience that will position them well for graduate or professional school and employment in the 21st century.”

As Grammy Award winning artist Drake says in his 2013 smash hit, VCU’s Department of African American Studies has “started from the bottom, now we’re here.” Well sort of.

Up next on the agenda for the Department of African American Studies are proposals for a post-baccalaureate certificate program in African American Health and Health Disparities as well as a combined bachelors-to-masters program in African American Studies.

“We can ill-afford to be complacent now simply because we’ve met the minimum standard. We’re in competition with nationally ranked programs – graduate programs – to recruit the most brilliant minds out there. I want those students to come here to VCU. Regardless of where they are.”

McKayla and McKenzie Stokes edited this feature story. McKayla is a double major in African American Studies and Criminal Justice. McKenzie is a double major in African American Studies and Psychology. Both students will graduate in May 2017.