CORVALLIS - Buoyed by past success, this fall Oregon State University is expanding Black Connect '99, a student orientation program designed to help African Americans adjust to college life and stay in school.

The number of students attending OSU's Black Connect and later dropping out of college is only about 9 percent, said Paul James, coordinator of OSU's Ujima Education Office. Nationwide, the college dropout rate hovers around 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"I wish there was a program like this when I first started here," said Katrina Hopkins, an OSU senior from Portland, who worked throughout the summer to coordinate Black Connect '99 for the Ujima Education Office.

Oregon State opened the Ujima Education Office in 1997 to assist African American students with cultural, educational and social development, James said. The office is named for a Swahili word meaning "collective work and responsibility." A large part of the office's work involves retention and recruitment of students, he said.

Black Connect '99 gives students two days of academic, social and financial guidance before OSU fall term begins on Sept. 27. In addition, the program allows incoming students to mix and mingle with current OSU students . The 1998 program lasted only a day. However, this year's program will last two days and have two follow-up programs during the year to further aid students, James said.

African American students, who in 1998 comprised 165 students of the university's 14,618 enrollment, may feel isolated when they first arrive at OSU, Hopkins said. Black Connect is designed to get those students motivated and excited about their new college environment she said.

"We want students to be a part of the university and the community," James added.

And so far, the concept seems to work. Twenty-two students attended Black Connect in 1998 and of those 22, 20 are returning to campus this fall. And, about eight of those students are well on their way to becoming student leaders, James said.

Already, OSU's student body president and vice president are African Americans.

While OSU also holds a campus-wide Connect program for all students, educators are finding that the culturally specific needs of African American students may be boosted by other programs.

"Coming to OSU, can be overwhelming. There are a lot of questions these students have, even simple questions, such as where to buy hair care products," James said.

Black Connect seeks to answer questions and assist student with the transition process.

"Students attending Black Connect are more likely to be successful and are more likely to stay in college," James said.

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Paul James, 541-737-9032