COVID-19 has made helping black and brown students at Highline more challenging.
Umoja is one of several Highline programs aimed at helping diverse groups of students. Whether it be financial support, access to Wi-Fi, or even tutoring, Umoja offers all this and more to better serve black and brown students. While COVID-19 impacted some areas of support, Umoja continues to help students navigate higher education, its leaders say.
“COVID-19 has impacted Umoja by restricting the physical space that we occupy on campus,” said Umoja Program Assistant Shijuan Haynes.
Umoja tries to help a variety of students have success in college.
“We are a team of dedicated educators that are committed to the educational advancement and identity development of African, African American, and Black students. Our program thrives from connecting our students to the African diaspora in a communal setting — the village,” Haynes said.
“Umoja (ooo-moe-jah) is a Kis-Swahili word meaning unity,” Haynes said.
Umoja has a dedicated space for African, Black and Brown students located on the 25th floor of the library, called the Umoja village, Haynes said.
“Everything about the village space reflects these cultures and narratives,” Haynes said.
“The Umoja village or ‘classroom’ is a physical space that allows students of color to interact with one another, and faculty and staff of color,” she said.
Currently Umoja at Highline supports a maximum of 30 students.
“We support the students in the village space by providing food, spaces for sleep, study, advising, community time, and programing. For our program and students’ success the space can be a vital resource in itself,” Haynes said.
“There is also the growing concern over reliable Wi-Fi connections and study spaces available to black and brown students when they are not allowed to access campus for these spaces,” Haynes said.
Adding to the concern, many Black and Brown students have issues with mobility, which makes access to these resources already difficult for some, said Haynes.
The most requested resources from students in Umoja are financial aid and laptop support, Haynes said.
For those without, Umoja is able to loan some students a laptop through a borrowing program. In addition to that, students can get help filling out applications for financial aid and scholarships to get them connected with the right resources.
Along with providing the necessary equipment, they also provide students with culturally relevant mental health support from counselors, said Haynes.
“We have not seen a rise in the requests to counseling services per se,” she said in regard to COVID-19.
“Umoja has a counselor that specifically provides culturally relevant mental health solutions to our dynamic of students, Black and Brown, and since this program is a bit unconventional in the way that it is operated within the traditional classroom framework, Umoja students receive a more direct approach when in need of counseling or mentorship,” said Haynes.
As Umoja provides culturally relevant counseling, they also offer to engage students through culturally relevant academics that are available each year.
“Our most critical resource in Umoja is identity development and culturally relevant course work,” Haynes said, “providing a space where Black and Brown education can connect with the coursework being provided. We provide these students with a foundation to present a picture of ‘their’ America, and its impacts on how they view education and why.”
Cultural responsiveness allows students to bring their own experiences and outlooks into the classroom, she said.
“Our first service is to our students, and in our stewardship to them, we strive to have each scholar explore their culture, and how it influences their unique identity as a person of color,” Haynes said.
Umoja helps students explore their identity and how it intersects within the American framework, she said.
“As dedicated educators, we value and embrace our students’ connectedness to the African diaspora and strive to enhance their overall journey through higher education by providing every scholar with a foundation of who they are, where they are from, and teaching through an ethic of love,” Haynes said.
“Our staff is trained in providing a culturally responsive teaching pedagogy, that allows our scholars to see themselves reflected in the content given in the classroom,” Haynes said.
Umoja at Highline is the only operating branch of the program outside of California, Haynes said.
“We are proud to stay in connection with them, and we actively participate in Umoja activities outside of Washington state,” Haynes said.
This year marks the program’s seventh year in operation. This fall, Krystal Welch became the new program coordinator, she said. Haynes said the program aims to continue its considerable success in helping student succeed.
“We also have a 98 percent pass rate with our Math 146+ statistics class. We have had a host of scholars that have transferred from Highline to some very prestigious four-year institutions, and HBCUs,” Haynes said, referring to historically black colleges and universities.
Recently the program has developed an Umoja club, Kwanzaa programing, and a newsletter to help stay in touch with students, Haynes said.
For more information about the program, visit https://umoja.highline.edu/