Publication Date

December 1, 2009

Noralee Frankel, AHA’s assistant director for women, minorities, and teaching, writes: For years, the AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians has been concerned with the noticeable drop in the number of minority students taking up history as a major field of study. This reduction in student enrollments has serious long-term consequences for the profession, as George Sanchez pointed out in his article, “Confronting a Crisis in the Historical Profession,” in the October 2007 Perspectives on History. The problems are complex and the solutions are not easy. But one useful step, the CMH decided, would be to disseminate information about methods that had been successfully adopted by history departments to recruit and retain students. Toward this end, therefore, the committee commissioned two articles. The following two articles describe strategies that two departments have employed to recruit minority students into history. explains how Hartwick College, a small college in upstate New York recruited and retained minority students at the undergraduate level and Fitzhugh Brundage explains efforts made by the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to bring in graduate students. We hope our readers find these articles helpful. If you would like to share your department’s experiences, please e-mail Noralee Frankel with a brief proposal for an article that can be considered for publication in Perspectives on History or on the AHA web site.

While the specific procedures for recruiting and retaining underrepresented populations of undergraduate students may vary by institution, certain elements of the process are shared in common. As a participant-observer of the process at Hartwick College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, I recognize several essential ingredients in the process: (1) institutional commitment, essential for long-term success in recruitment and retention; (2) a welcoming and gathering center for students of color; (3) consistent programming, including celebrations and student-generated activities and clubs; (4) the presence of a mentor/role model; and (5) faculty support and engagement. In this essay, I will discuss, with special reference to history majors/students, how Hartwick College, with 1,480 students from 33 states and 16 countries, incorporated many of these elements into its student recruitment efforts.

Institutional Commitment

One of the most important ingredients for a successful campaign to recruit minority students—whatever their field of interest—is clearly demonstrated institutional will, especially the institution’s commitment for the long term. This can be indicated in declared policies and in their implementation. At Hartwick College, this necessary commitment was most clearly reflected in the creation in 1993 of a dedicated position—of an associate dean and director of U.S. pluralism programs. Since its inception, the position has been ably and enthusiastically filled by Harry Bradshaw Matthews.

Hartwick has also expressed its institutional commitment with a generous programming budget for pluralism activities: field trips (for example, to the nearby Harriet Tubman Home and the New York State Underground Railroad Conference); guest speakers; the annual Emancipation Ball during Black History Month; and the Harriet Tubman Awards Dinner.


Even after successful recruitment, retention remains a challenge, especially because all students—residential students in particular—miss family and ethnic ties, and thus often face additional stresses as they contend with the usual academic requirements. In this context, institutional commitment alone will not be enough—although it is essential—for keeping minority students in college. Active faculty support will also be needed through curriculum development conducive to a multicultural environment, and advising and mentoring in and out of the classroom.

The College Curriculum and the Minority Student

Its role in helping minority students to benefit fully from instructional programs, and even more importantly, in their continuing on the rolls may not always be visible or acknowledged as such, but the curriculum, it can be said, plays a significant role, indeed. The Hartwick College Curricular Mission’s first stated goal is to “Recognize profound cultural and natural diversity and interconnectedness, and thus seek to build a deeper understanding of similarities and differences across time and space.” The college offers many courses across the curriculum, covering race and ethnicity, African and Latin American studies, as well as an interdisciplinary minor in the U.S. Ethnic Studies Program. This multicultural programming is in keeping with the college’s broad commitment to global pluralism through its Center for Interdependence, which has gained national recognition for its students’ high level of participation in studies abroad.

Linking the Minority Student and the History Major Curriculum

Often, ALANA (African American, Latina/o, Asian, and Native American) history majors are first introduced to topics on diversity through our “Perspectives” courses. To further inclusiveness in our major’s required courses and move away from the Euro-American model, the history department replaced the traditional Western civilization and American two-part surveys in fall 2003 with its U.S. and Global Perspectives courses, including “Race and Ethnicity” in the American offerings and “Race and Identity” among the global courses.

In framing our proposal to revise our major requirements, we argued that several of the Perspectives courses offer more opportunity to analyze power structures that have created both the problems and opportunities that are present today and will continue to challenge us. Discussion of these issues raises the students’ awareness in preparation for their roles as citizens of their nation and the world. This discussion supports our department’s stated goal: “Exploring history, whether as part of a liberal education or as a major, engages students to question the historical ‘truths’ offered as justifications of current systems of power and equality.” Following through at our mid- and seminar-levels, we offer such courses as: “Free and Unfree Labor”; “The Atlantic World”; “Topics in African History”; “Slavery and Revolution in Latin America”; as well as “African-Americans in the North”; “Slavery and Abolition”; “The Civil War and Reconstruction”; and “Civil Rights/Black Power Movements”. Race and poverty are usually present in instances of environmental injustice. Our first-year seminar, “Environmental Injustice,” analyzes these problems through case studies of Latino and African American communities and workers.

A senior thesis, based on primary and secondary research, is required of all history majors. One of our recent ALANA history majors chose an African history topic for her senior thesis; she also fulfilled the African American concentration for her ethnic studies minor. However, ALANA majors have also chosen European history topics for senior theses, as readily as our Caucasian students choose Latin American, Native American or African American topics.

The Role of the Faculty

We have worked hard to look beyond our history major and ensure that we serve students of color in all our courses, regardless of their major. Therefore, students of color across the disciplines often begin with a relevant Perspective course and continue with other history courses. For example, the U.S. Perspective’s “Race and Ethnicity” course, serving both majors and non-majors, incorporates two papers that recognize the ethnic heritages of the students, requiring every student to research and write about the ethnic history of his or her family and community. In thus drawing from their respective cultural backgrounds to make their in-class presentations, students (and ALANA students in particular) enable everyone in the class to better appreciate the diverse histories and contributions of the various communities represented.

Also of special interest to history students and others is the United States Colored Troops (USCT) Institute for Local History and Family Research, a national membership organization founded at Hartwick by Dean Matthews in 1998 to research and celebrate colored troops who served in the Civil War. In intertwining the histories and genealogies of these troops with the history of the college and the local community, the institute provides in its activities an exemplary model for history students at Hartwick College, implicitly showing them the interconnections between the individual, the local, and the larger frames of historical research. By working with the public research librarians and local historians in surrounding communities, Matthews has facilitated students’ access to the histories of local African American residents.

Although the focus here has been on African and African American history, the department also offers innovative Native American history courses, which, in turn, support the Native American concentration in the U.S. Ethnic Studies Program. Our college library is well known for its excellent collection of books on Native American history, especially on the Iroquois Confederacy, and our Yager Museum includes a permanent gallery featuring the Upper Susquehanna archaeology collection of Willard Yager. In October 2008, the history department, including a visiting Iroquois scholar, participated in the college event, “Native Balance: Indigenous Ways in a Modern World,” a program of art, stories, and knowledge celebrating First Nations’ contributions to sustainability. We believe these resources and efforts have improved our retention of students of Native American descent and we have several history majors with Native American heritage.

Advising and Mentoring Students of Color

Paramount to student success is to place the student’s need over the department’s growth. In advising our majors, regardless of their ethnicity, we carefully review their transcript and course schedule and promote their progress toward an interdisciplinary minor, such as U.S. ethnic studies, Latin American studies, or women’s studies, among our several programs.

In a less formal manner, the history faculty members take a keen interest in the pluralism programs and play an important role as mentors and role models. A program with significant institutional support contributes to student development—and therefore, we like to think, to student retention—the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project (under the auspices of the USCT Institute), which aims to create leadership skills through knowledge and service, and through intensive interaction at dinner discussions between students and faculty members, including professors from the history department. While the interaction here is limited to those attending dinner, other programs reach a larger student and community audience. Thus, department members serve as role models in demonstrating commitment to scholarship contributing to diversity, through their students’ and their own research.

A Welcoming and Gathering Center for Students of Color

At Hartwick College the institutional effort also takes the form of a dedicated space—the U.S. Pluralism Center, located next to Dean Matthews’ office in Bresee Hall—to serve as a gathering place to welcome prospective students and to serve current students as a base for many of the college’s programs aimed at minority students. This is a measure that virtually any institution can adopt with relative ease, but it is a step that is likely to have a great impact on student life. The Pluralism Center at Hartwick College is, of course, open to students from all disciplines, but history students of color in particular find much that is especially attractive. The walls of the center are covered with framed portraits and documents of historical figures in the “Freedom Journey,” and the bookcases hold many first-edition books (from the personal collection of the director) pertaining to the antislavery movement and its ties to individuals in Hartwick College’s history, such as Isaac Newton Arnold, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln and his congressional ally in the emancipation struggle.

Challenges and Responses

While there will always be challenges to recruit and retain students of color, a major challenge is to consistently offer a range of courses outside of Western European and U.S. history. Certainly, we would like to grow the major to include Asian history courses, but currently, our priority is on the need to maintain positions in African history and Native American studies; and we look forward to stronger economic conditions that will allow us to fully restore these positions. While the college has achieved a 12 percent ALANA rate, many of these students choose non-history majors. The history department respects their decisions and understands its responsibility to serve these students while recruiting and retaining students of color to its major. We believe we have created a history program that promotes cultural diversity and inclusiveness, contributing to the major and the college as a whole. Thus, when students of underrepresented groups arrive on Hartwick’s campus, they find pluralism programs and activities, leadership and social clubs, a gathering center, a supportive administration and faculty, a mentoring program (and several dedicated mentors), and history courses that include their cultural background to welcome them and to support them through their tenure. While all of these elements have some specific characteristics that are unique to Hartwick College, many of them, in more general terms, can easily be adapted for other institutions, with similar success in achieving the important goals of recruitment and retention.

— is the Dewar Professor of History and chair of the history department at Hartwick College. She teaches courses on civil rights and race and ethnicity.

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