South Campus aids in overall diversity

Tessa Duvall

Michelle Hollis doesn’t want to hear excuses.

“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Hollis said. “My mom dropped out of school when she was 16 to have me. My dad was 15. My mom never went back to school, and my dad ended up going to the Job Corps. He got a GED.

“But my mom raised us on a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ principle. So it didn’t matter that she dropped out of school — that wasn’t an option for me or my siblings.”

Raised in the housing projects of Baltimore, Hollis is an associate professor of math in WKU’s Academic Support Division and interim director of the Office of Diversity Programs.

“I know that you can come from a bad environment and still be very successful, and I try to instill that in the students here,” she said.

Behind her tough-love exterior, Hollis has a deep passion for helping minority students succeed and enhancing diversity in higher education.

In 1991, this is the same spark that Quentin Hollis saw in then-Michelle Felder when they met as undergraduates at Howard University — a historically black university. Quentin, an associate professor of psychology and liberal arts at South Campus, has only watched her care for students to grow.

“She was always kind of frustrated with the idea that if you were a single mom, or if you were not your traditional student, or you were a minority, that you couldn’t make it,” he said. “Or even if you were a traditional student but your grades were kind of bad that you couldn’t make it.”

Michelle Hollis, who teaches at South Campus, works with a student body that is dramatically different than WKU’s overall population.

The WKU student body was 10.3 percent black in the fall of 2010, according to the 2011 Factbook.

But in comparison, of the students who took at least one class at South Campus in the fall of 2011, 30.2 percent were black, according to data provided by Institutional Research.

The Asian and Hispanic populations at South Campus are similar to the makeup of WKU’s general population, but white students account for only 60.4 percent of the South Campus population, compared to 82.2 of WKU’s total enrollment.

In the past several years, South Campus has undergone an array of restructuring and reforms, all of which have impacted the students. During the 2010-2011 school year, WKU began to institute a gradual increase in admission requirements that led to the enactment of an ACT floor of 16 to be increased by one point a year until 2014.

“A lot of the students here are African-American, and I was concerned about the increase in enrollment standards and those standards eliminating the opportunity for them to attend WKU,” Hollis said.

Students with a minimum unweighted 2.0 high school GPA or an ACT composite of 17 are conditionally admitted to WKU and must first take developmental courses. These students find themselves at South Campus, home to all of WKU’s developmental courses, although other courses are taught there.

These changes, specifically the loss of open enrollment, have lessened educational opportunities for minority students at WKU, Hollis said.

“I’m a strong advocate for underprepared students, because I don’t think that you can look at a test score on a piece of paper and determine if that student is going to have a chance to be successful or not,” she said. “So I feel like a lot of students who are going to fall into that category are going to be minority students based on our numbers.”

When a task force on admission standards looked at students that would not be admitted due to increased requirements, Hollis said she was told only a handful of minority students would not meet requirements.

“When you start to change the color of your student body, it messes up the diversity across the board,” she said. “Not only do you lose the presence of those minority faces, the non-minority students lose the opportunity to learn about students who are not like them.”

But during the first year under the new standards, WKU did not admit a large number of black applicants that would have been admitted under old standards, she said.

“If those students had been admitted, they would have been admitted through South Campus, and that alters our diversity numbers tremendously,” Hollis said. “It doesn’t completely eliminate their opportunity to get a degree because they can go to a community college somewhere else, but they could have come here.”

It was the appeal of the Bowling Green Community College that drew many students to the Hill, including alumna Latoya Patterson-Smith.

Patterson-Smith, now a 30-year-old mother of two with her master’s degree, came to WKU in 2000 by way of BGCC as an 18-year-old single mom. Her parents, both members of the Army, had just left for Germany as their daughter began college.

“I was a teenage mom and all, but I always had the drive and determination. I knew I was going to college — I just didn’t know where I was going to college,” Patterson-Smith said.

Patterson-Smith enrolled in a math class taught by Hollis, and the pair immediately connected.

“(Hollis’ story) impacted me because, no, she may not have had a child as a teenager, but she was already considered at a disadvantage,” Patterson-Smith said.

“When you live in poverty, you’re not praised, you’re not glorified…

“If you’re black and poor or black and a teenage mother, you’re already cast out before you hit the gate.”

Now, Hollis is the godmother of Patterson-Smith’s second son, who will turn three in October.

“The faculty really cares,” she said. “Mrs. Hollis and I grew close. She’s not only like a mentor, she’s a second mom.”

Patterson-Smith attributes much of her success to the support she received from the staff at South Campus. When starting college, Patterson-Smith said she craved more attention from instructors and a smaller setting before making the transition to the Hill. She also received help from staff finding a job, an apartment and childcare services.

She went on to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in fewer than four years.

“To me, I think the university shortchanged itself,” she said. “Sometimes people need to start at a smaller place to be successful.”

Now employed as a student financial aid officer at the Art Institute of Indianapolis, Patterson-Smith said she shares her story with students.

“I could be at an accounting firm making tons of money, but I’ve stayed in higher ed because of the service that was given to me and to make an imprint on students the same way they made their imprint on me,” she said.

“My calling is to be in higher education to give back and reach back to help others achieve their dreams. It’s in my heart to do that.”

*Editor’s note:  This is part one of a four-part series.