Programs for minority students aid retention

Tessa Duvall

In high school, Denise Smith only did only the minimum in the classroom to graduate.

“In high school, I didn’t care about anything too much,” the Louisville junior said. “I was kind of a problem child. I did just enough to get out of there in four years.”


Smith, a self-described class clown, said she originally didn’t think college was in her cards. Her ACT score and grades reflected this.

“I don’t know why I came to WKU,” she said. “I hadn’t really planned on going to college after high school. I was kind of a different person in high school. I didn’t expect to get the acceptance letter back from WKU, so when they accepted me, I just jumped on it,” she said.

Adjusting to academic expectations and student life at WKU came slowly for Smith.

Enter Vee “Mama Vee” Smith, assistant director of the Office of Diversity Programs, who aided in Denise’s transition.

“Not much changed my first year here at WKU, but I did — thank God for developmentals, they don’t go toward your GPA — I got lucky with that. It didn’t get better until I seen Vee in their little kiosk in South Campus.”

But making changes wasn’t easy, she said.

“Vee is a tough lover,” Smith said. “Vee’s drive will inspire you, because she’ll do whatever it takes, regardless of how you feel about it. She’ll never lie to you.”

For Vee Smith, being there for students is just a part of her job. In her role as assistant director of ODP, Smith serves as a resource and finds programs that assist underrepresented students. Smith makes sure minority students get what they need to succeed and connects them to the proper resources on campus.

“When I first started working here at Western, I wasn’t impressed with how I saw the students looking. A lot of the black men had their pants sagging, not knowing how to talk,” she said. “A lot of students just don’t know that’s not proper, that you can’t do that here in college, that it’s not acceptable.

“I’m not one of those people who’s going to sit here and complain and say, ‘Well, I hate how somebody does this.’ I’m going to find a way to make sure you understand it.”

Programs Smith has developed are Project CLASS (Creating Leaders and Shaping Sisters) for female at-risk minority students and Come Up for male at-risk minority students. Many of these participants are taking or have taken developmental classes at South Campus and are first-generation college students, she said.

Since beginning in 2008, the programs have evolved from 10 weeks to a full semester. Three cycles of Come Up have been completed, and the third group of Project CLASS is in progress. The first group had seven students. The current group has 19.

The programs, designed to help students succeed in college and later in life, teach skills about how to manage money, time, relationships, academics, etiquette, networking and other necessary skills. Participants are also given their first business suit. At the end of the semester, there is a banquet, and the student who has been the most committed to the program will earn a $1,000 scholarship.

Smith said that about 85 percent of the students who have been through the program remained at WKU.

From the first cohort in 2008, all seven men graduated except for two — one will graduate next year, and the other no longer attends WKU.

Denise Smith said Project CLASS turned her WKU experience around.

“It just basically teaches you the ropes to get through college, to stay and to actually graduate,” she said. “I didn’t care about much until I did Project CLASS.”

But it didn’t sink in right away. Smith asked to go through Project CLASS two times.

“Now that’s not normal — that’s just how hard-headed I am,” she said.

After going through the program as a freshman, Smith realized she had not taken full advantage of it.

“I wanted to do it again but do it correctly because I seen how it helped some of the other girls,” she said. “I seen a lot of the girls getting something out of it but I wasn’t. So I went to Vee and asked her, ‘Could I do it again?’ She usually doesn’t allow that, but she appreciated the fact that I came and asked her.”

Now, Smith said she builds rapport with her professors and stays on top of her grades, as well as her friends’ educations.

“See, my friends back home call me the mama now because I’m on them about, you know, financial aid or getting this in or that in or even getting a job,” she said. “Even though it helped me the most, I think it benefitted all of us. We were kind of toxic to each other.”

Of her high school friends who started WKU, most of whom are also black, Smith said she is the only one still on the Hill.

Marika Purce, a freshman from Madisonville, also attributes much of her success to Project CLASS teaching her necessary the skills for college and the South Campus setting easing her into the university experience.

In high school, Purce — a first-generation college student — said her grades weren’t the best because she worked 35 hours a week and slept during school.

“Coming to college, my grades weren’t that good. So a lot of people told me, ‘Oh, you need to go to community college and do that — do the two years then come to the big college,’” Purce said. “…If it wasn’t for South Campus, I wouldn’t be able to be here because my GPA was so low.”

Currently enrolled in Project CLASS, Purce said she has learned valuable information — such as how to present herself and managing what she puts on her Facebook — that will carry over past her time at WKU and into graduate school and the professional world.

“I take it in and just think about it, and if I’m going through something, I go back and think about what they said and how they said to handle it,” she said. “Being a freshman in college — especially the first generation in college — you don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s a lot of stress.

“It’s good to have somebody to tell you how to handle all that or somebody to go talk to. Ms. Vee, she’s always there — if you ever need her, she’s always there.”

Vee Smith said Project CLASS and Come Up are proving their worth by retaining at-risk students.

“There are several that just don’t know (what’s expected), and it’s educational more than anything. We know that we’re working with a group of students that are potentially not prepared for college, which means they don’t know how to acclimate themselves into the environment,” Smith said. “So why would we then go around and treat them as if they should know everything and then get mad when they don’t?”

Smith said, for example, that many students sagged their pants because they never knew their right size.

“It’s not because they chose to do that — they’ve worn it for so long and done it for so long, and that was their culture, and this is how we grew up, this is how they dress, and that now they need to wear an actual pair of pants for the work environment, they were totally clueless.

“So now you understand that now they’re not just sagging because they want to — it’s because they don’t know how to dress.”

For Denise Smith, Project CLASS and Mama Vee have impacted her career path. She aspires to go into higher education to create programs similar to the ones she participated in to help other minority students succeed.

“I think it would be selfish of me to learn all of this and not teach it to someone else,” she said. “There’s a lot of students here who want to do better but don’t know where to start, and those are the ones who usually get pushed to the wayside, you know, because they think no one cares.”

The tough love approach is already showing in Smith.

“Only the strong survive,” she said. “If you want to change, you’ll stick with it.”

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