URBANA– During her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, Tequilla Noel wasn't hard to spot in a classroom.
"There were times when I was literally the only black person," said Noel, 23, of Chicago, who was also a first-generation college student.
Despite not seeing another person that looked liked her, she adapted well and graduated. Others apparently didn't.
According to a new study, the UI has the third-largest "graduation gap" between white and black students in the Big Ten.
The UI graduated a little more than eight of 10 white students and around six of 10 black students, producing a 21.6 percent graduation gap. The study examined students entering college in 1997 and graduating within six years. But even with the disparity, the UI black graduation rate was 69th out of 302 Division I four-year schools nationwide, which puts it in the top 25 percent. The UI improves to the top 10 percent when placed against Division I, II and III schools.
"We did note that there is a pretty large gap between white and students of color graduating. That is something to be concerned about," said Kevin Carey, director of policy research for The Education Trust, who performed the study. The Education Trust is an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to make schools and colleges work for all of the young people they serve, according to its Web site.
The University of Iowa had the largest differential in the Big Ten with 27.1 percent, followed by Ohio State University with 22.5 percent.
The gap between UI white and Latino students was smaller at 16.6 percent (83.6 percent to 67 percent), while the gap between white and American Indian students was the largest at 41.9 percent. Black, Latino and American Indian students make up less than 16 percent of the UI student body.
Noel said she wasn't bothered by being the lone black face in a classroom.
"School is like work. You are not there to socialize in the classroom. You have to learn how to work with everybody," she said. "And there is enough black people down here that you will find people to hang out with."
But there was an aspect she didn't appreciate.
"Whenever any racial question was asked, my answer was taken as the reflection of every black person," she said. "I had to say, 'This is my opinion, and not every black person thinks like this.'"
Noel has worked with various university requirement programs that bring high schoolers to campus for the weekend. The high schoolers visit the African American Cultural House and get their questions answered by a panel of UI black students.
"It's for students that normally wouldn't look at the UI, and it gets their eyes open," said Noel, a first-year graduate student in public health.
UI officials said many programs were started in the past six years to provide academic and social support to students, including a new program at an Urbana residence hall, which provides an outlet for students to talk about racial issues in a comfortable environment.
"We were well aware of the issues before the Education Trust report came out," said Ruth Watkins, UI associate provost. "We recognize that we need to do more."
Watkins said the university is proud of its 81 percent overall graduation rate, fourth in the Big Ten behind Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State universities.
Carey said the UI's overall graduation rate is much higher than similar top-tier schools.
"It's good to see the overall rate is so high, but the challenge for the University of Illinois now is to extend that success to all students," he said.
Michael Jefferies, dean of the Office of Minority Student Affairs at UI, said progress is being made.
"Our African-American graduate rate of 62 percent is higher than most institutions have for their overall rate," he said. "When I came here years ago, it was in the low 30s."
For years, the U.S. Department of Education didn't report gender or ethnicity in graduation rates, Carey said. But after the department released more thorough statistics a year ago, The Education Trust began its work.
He added that some Ivy League schools have little to no gap between black and white students graduating. At Harvard University, 97.8 percent of whites and 95.4 percent of blacks graduate. Other minorities such as Latinos and American Indians have a higher graduation rate than whites at Harvard.
"We hope institutions use this information as a source for improvement," Carey said.
UI officials have also talked about doing their own study, which would include student interviews.
"We need to better understand what factors are influencing retention and graduate rates," Watkins said. "But sometimes we don't know what students are going to leave until they are gone."
The Office of Minority Student Affairs hosts informational sessions before classes begin, and it offers a mentor program for incoming students. Jefferies hopes that puts students on a solid footing because he believes there is a distinct correlation between feeling at home in an area and academic success.
"We want to make students feel comfortable in this environment so they don't have to run home every weekend like it used to be in the old days," he said.
Noel suggests that the school should recruit more men to be advisers and tutors.
"We need more black male counselors," she said. "Sometimes men are embarrassed to go to women for help."
You can reach News-Gazette staff writer Ernst Lamothe Jr. at (217) 351-5223 or via e-mail at email@example.com.