THE BLOG
10/25/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Your "Peeps" Can Get You Through College

For some crazy reason I always love it when the Today Show's Al Roker stands on his platform and shouts to the crowd. "My people, my people!" There is something we all crave that is tribal about belonging. It has been cited as essential by psychologists like Eric Erikson for decades. It is a need that is credited for behaviors as diverse as gang violence to crowd sourcing via Kickstarter. It certainly shows up in sporting events in sometimes distressing and bizarre ways. Why then is it that this basic human need seems to vanish for many students when they hit college. Belonging is what can make college work.

It is common knowledge that every freshman thinks every other freshman knows what is going on and has it all sewed up. In reality few do. But those who have a tribe early on have a better chance of navigating new waters than those who are going it alone. Sometimes the tribe may be students from the same high school or town. Sports teams can create tribes. But finding some community of interest is essential.

Students, especially first generation and low-income students, because they think everyone else knows what is going on or because they are afraid to ask questions so as to not affirm some negative stereotype people may have of them by virtue of ethnicity or income or some other factor, will not ask questions or ask for help. Or they wait until it is pretty close to too late.

I have seen students literally going from class to their room or home and back again without ever speaking to anyone on campus including during class. What they did not understand is that you do much much better if you are an inquiring and engaging student. College is all about inquiry and part of the impact of college that makes a difference on the job market will be the connections that you make ranging from faculty who can write recommendations to the parents of classmates who may know of jobs.

However there is a way to avoid isolation and the risks that can come from it. It is finding your tribe early on. The students who come in from programs like Posse which sends clusters of students of like background to college together, or who hit campus early for a sports team tend to be engaged in college life earlier and are more likely to thrive. They have a ready-made tribe.

But there are other options too. There are programs like the Black Male Initiative at the City University of New York (CUNY) and on other campuses across the country including Florida Memorial, NYU, and Philander Smith. There are programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars at the University of Maryland and the Academic Achievement Program (AAP) at NYU which drive toward high academic excellence among primarily students of color. There are often clubs based on shared geography like a Haitian Club. Others may relate to a faith practice and bring together students who share a religious background.

Some programs are academic in nature. They may be trying to fill the pipeline to the professoriate by offering chances to engage in research mentored by faculty as an undergraduate, especially for those who may be underrepresented in certain fields. Many additional opportunities to excel academically exist. They are not necessarily tied to the classroom, but they also build and enhance your professional profile. Programs range from special internships (sometimes coupled with a class), to mentored research fellowships.

There are many federally funded programs for students classified as low income, first generation to attend college, and/or underrepresented in certain fields, and the students they typically seek also include, specifically, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, disabled, or in some cases women in general or veterans. One such is the McNair program, funded by the Department of Education designed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, named for Ronald McNair, a Black astronaut lost on the 1986 Challenger flight. The McNair and programs like it--including NIMH/ COR (National Institute of Mental Health-Careers in Research Program), MARC (National Institute of Health's Minority Access to Research Careers Program), MBRS (National Institute of Health's Minority Biomedical Research Program), RISE (National Institute of Health's Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement Program), LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and many others--hope to give students in the designated populations access to mentored research opportunities on their campuses, summer GRE prep, special courses or workshops, and exposure to conferences and opportunities to give presentations, as well as general guidance to graduate programs. Even better, they usually offer stipends.

All these programs provide a safe space where you are likely to find students who come from backgrounds like your own and both shared experience and shared goals. Similarly there will be shared fears and concerns about navigating the college terrain. But upperclassmen and advisers in these programs can offer their wisdom, support and encouragement. Sonia Sotomayor in her biography My Beloved World talks about how important it was for her to find her tribe among the students at Princeton where she felt very like a fish out of water. Upperclassmen told her which classes to take and which to avoid, what the political landscape of the college would be like and where to shop. They remain her best friends.

Having worked with both the Academic Achievement Program at NYU and the Black Male Initiative at CUNY, I have seen how students can be totally transformed. One student at Hunter College's Black Male initiative (BMI) was brilliant and silent. By his junior year he had nothing on his resume and no ties to the college, but he also had a 4.0 GPA. Through BMI we were able to situate him in leadership roles, find him a mentor, engage him in a community, find him an internship, write letters of recommendation for the MIT Poverty lab when he graduated and he is now getting a graduate degree at Harvard. The good news is that I could spend pages on stories like his.

What is tragic is that many students shy away from clubs and programs either thinking they will be distracting or that they imply a need for help or support. We all need help and support. Those who are highly successful talk openly and often about where they found theirs.

The idea is not, however, to use these programs as the only thing you do on campus. They are a starting place. They are like home. These members of your tribe, your people, are the ones you can celebrate the A on the math exam with or ask to be tutored in math if you are struggling with it. You can talk about the issues happening at home which others may not relate to. You can share music or films or whatever else engages you. You can go to concerts together. You can learn how to be a better and more interesting person in this safe space. But ultimately the goal is to leave it.

Empowered as you were by your family when you struck out on this whole college venture, your college based tribe sends you out to take on leadership roles on campus, thus enhancing your resume, or sends you off to a conference where your presentation of a paper may lead to a grad school acceptance. Within the safe space of this group of your people you will find the power to venture forth and do what you went to college to do in the first place... make that tribe at home proud.

Learn more about Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D and her book I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide at www.collegecountdown.com