Umoja Centers Black Experiences in Higher-Education

San José City College and Evergreen Valley College Umoja students attend a lecture during the Fall 2019 tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
San José City College and Evergreen Valley College Umoja students attend a lecture during the Fall 2019 tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Feeling a sense of ‘belonging and acceptance’ is critical for any student in a college setting. This is especially true for many African American students who see a sparse representation of themselves when they arrive on campus.” Says Dedrick Griffin, Umoja Community Coordinator and Professor of English at San José City College.

SJCC’s Umoja Community plays an essential role in supporting and encouraging this sense of connection and belonging among African American and other students. When people think of SJCC, they should think of excellence and affordability — but they should also think of an equitable academic experience for all. 

So let’s explore how the Umoja Community strives to increase equity in higher-education by centering Black experiences and history — benefiting our community as a whole.

What is the Umoja Community?

The organization’s mission statement says “Umoja, (a Kiswahili word meaning unity) is a community and critical resource dedicated to enhancing the cultural and educational experiences of African American and other students. We believe that when the voices and histories of students are deliberately and intentionally recognized, the opportunity for self-efficacy emerges and a foundation is formed for academic success.”

The Umoja Community partners with California Community Colleges to carry out this mission. You can find Umoja Programs at 60 different affiliated community colleges across California.

Umoja aims to support Black communities and improve their experiences in higher-education — often functioning as a kind of Black student union with a lot of fun cultural benefits. It’s specifically designed to improve student retention, graduation and college transfer rates.

Now, SJCC already has a reputation for being an inclusive and equal opportunity institution. So you might be wondering, why Umoja?

“The need is great, we have to have representation, especially in higher education. Let the world know that we are here, and we are coming together to make the world a better place through our personal experience.”

Cara Parker, student leader and member of the Umoja Community at SJCC

Why the Umoja Community is Crucial for All Students

The unfortunate reality is the United States was founded on systemic oppression and white supremacy. Our country is still struggling to undo the shameful past of slavery and everything that came with it. 

While many may jump to claim 2020 as the year of racial reckoning, the truth is — it wasn’t. We still have a long way to go, and these efforts are essential. Because in order to get through the challenges of the 21st century, we must overcome racism and bigotry first.

Inside Higher Ed’s series, The Black Experience in Higher Education provides us with a comprehensive catalogue of the many obstacles (all tied to systemic racism) that Black students face before, after, and during their time at a community college or 4-year university.

The solutions to these wide-reaching, often covert problems must also be — systemic. Which is why education experts at the University of Maryland believe that higher-education should lead the efforts to reverse structural racism

SJCC is committed to these critical efforts, and to shrinking equity gaps for all minority students. So let’s explore how the Umoja Community at SJCC does just that.

With the leadership and support of college President, Dr. Rowena M. Tomaneng, SJCC has undertaken a multi-pronged approach at dismantling structural racism, from increasing professional learning on culturally responsive curriculum and services to increasing course offerings in African American Studies.

“The Umoja program promotes academic and social integration of students of color, through counseling, culturally relevant pedagogy, and a tailored learning community that leads to increased student engagement, persistence, and academic performance.”

Dedrick Griffin, Umoja Community Coordinator and Professor of English at San José City College.
San José City College and Evergreen Valley College Umoja students pose at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. (During the 2019 HBCU Tour.)
San José City College and Evergreen Valley College Umoja students pose at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. (During the 2019 HBCU Tour.)

Umoja Improves the Higher-Ed Experience for Black Students

San José City College knows that every student needs a different combination of tools, resources, and support to achieve their goals of academic excellence. For students of color, the Umoja Community plays an important role in this tool kit.

Umoja is the leading Black student association on campus, and provides a wide variety of benefits. “The Umoja program promotes academic and social integration of students of color, through counseling, culturally relevant pedagogy, and a tailored learning community that leads to increased student engagement, persistence, and academic performance.” Griffin said.

For any student interested in joining — here’s what the Umoja Community has to offer you.

Umoja Benefits Can Make a Difference in Your Future

Let’s start with a list of the many social, structural, and academic benefits of joining the Umoja Community at SJCC.

  • Access to College Transfer Agreements with 30+ Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) 
  • Cultural workshops, events, and trips to universities (HBCU Tour)
  • Classes with Umoja peers and caring instructors
  • Supportive community and mentors
  • Use of the Umoja Lending Library
  • Dedicated SJCC counselor
  • Leaderships opportunities
  • Special scholarship access
  • Free tutoring

And that’s not all! Remember those college transfer agreements to HBCUs? They can also include things like pre-admission advising, transfer scholarships, and priority consideration for student housing. The benefits of joining Umoja are truly endless.

“Hearing what our students say about the services we provide and the counseling they receive is why I love what I do,” said Meiko Daire, Umoja African-American Student Success Counselor. “I’m here for the students and, seeing the impact we have and how they respond to the Umoja community in their lives confirms I am living my purpose.”

Now, some of the more practical perks alone make joining Umoja worthwhile. Because they have the potential to drastically shape your future for the better. But the most significant advantage is without a doubt, the remarkable community that Umoja students gain. 

Cara Parker, a student leader in the community said, “It’s been great being in this program and working/vibing with others that look like me and support me. The meetings and check-ins the professor does help us express our needs, successes and hurdles. We try to problem solve the issues that may keep us from succeeding academically and in real life.”

In the classroom, at a museum exhibit, or at the bowling alley — the Umoja Community is exceptionally caring. Umoja makes students feel seen and safe, so that they can unleash their brilliance and achieve their goals.

“I’m here for the students and, seeing the impact we have and how they respond to the Umoja community in their lives confirms I am living my purpose.”

Meiko Daire, Umoja African-American Student Success Counselor
Umoja students participated in African Ancestry Day at San José City College, February 2020. Featuring African fashion, food, dance, workshops, and guest speakers.
African Ancestry Day at San José City College, February 2020. Featuring African fashion, food, dance, workshops, and guest speakers.

Umoja Community Creates Long-Term Connections

The bonds created in this unique space are particularly strong. This goes back to the core meaning of Umoja — unity. One of the greatest gifts that this program gives students is long-lasting friendships and connections.

“These connections will serve as support in future challenges both personal and professional. And many of their current Umoja community members will be there to celebrate their future triumphs.” Griffin said.

And of course, the Umoja Community is not isolated, its leaders and members make efforts to collaborate, learn, and grow with other campus groups — especially those that also prioritize social justice and education equity.

Umoja Collaborates with Other Social Justice Groups

SJCC Umoja’s core mission is to focus on African American and African histories and experiences, but this is always grounded in the larger community at San José City College — as well as in the Bay Area.

Welcoming allies is important. And anytime Umoja holds an event to celebrate African ancestry or Black speakers, it is always open to the wider community. Umoja also shares a “village space” in the library with another minority-focused organization called Puente (which means bridge in Spanish). 

Puente also supports students who have been historically underrepresented at 4-year universities. As a whole, SJCC is deeply committed to continuing the development of equity-minded services and programs.

The Umoja Community Benefits All Students

The Umoja program doesn’t just benefit Black students, and it doesn’t just benefit students now. Because working to undo systemic racism in higher-education and bring about equity will have a ripple effect that benefits all students in the years to come.

Parker said. “The need is great, we have to have representation, especially in higher education. Let the world know that we are here, and we are coming together to make the world a better place through our personal experience. The younger generations need to see our faces and the good that can be done when we all pull together for the common good.” 

So if you’re interested in transferring to an HBCU, getting support to achieve your academic goals, or making meaningful connections — consider joining the Umoja Community at SJCC today!