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AFRO Hall Students Find Community, Support and Success

February 23, 2024
Layla Muhammad
Layla Muhammed has found her community in AFRO Hall.

Editor's note: In honor of Black History Month, the UC Merced newsroom is highlighting some of the organizations, services and people who serve or represent the Black community on campus.

Like many first-year students, Layla Muhammed stumbled a bit at the beginning of her journey at UC Merced.

But one of the most surprising things she learned was how much other people cared and would help her.

Muhammed, who comes from Yuba City, lives in Granite Pass in a living learning community (LLC) based around the African diaspora, called Afrikans for Retention and Outreach (AFRO) Hall. There, she found the help and resources she needed to smooth her transition to university life.

“My resident advisor, older students and even the Black academics coordinator worked to help me get into a better situation. They advocated for me in a way that previously only family members would,” Muhammed said. “I am extremely proud to be part of a community that fosters that kind of support.”

LLCs bring together first- and second-year students who have similar interests and educational goals, and provide or connect them with the academic, social and personal resources they will need to achieve success. Other LLCs are focused on topics such as sustainability and the environment, leadership, education and service, mathematics and the biomedical sciences.

There are a growing number of LLCs at UC Merced, but AFRO Hall made campus history by being the first and only one — so far — that has formed based on race.

Coordinator for Black Academic Success Initiatives Liana Williams said it is important for students to see others who look like them and know there are caring adults here for them.

“I want them to succeed, and I know that they can succeed, but sometimes they just need a little motivation or help or just overall support,” Williams said.

The students provide support for each other, as well.

“AFRO Hall is like a little community of its own and in a way, it felt comforting knowing that there were people who looked like me who lived next to me,” said Goodness Emedom, a third-year human biology student from Los Angeles who lived in the residence hall her first two years at UC Merced.

Even though she has had to move out of the hall, she is still an active participant and has accepted an invitation to be a mentor for younger students. She has already been assigned two.

“I’m very excited to meet them and help to guide them as they navigate college as freshmen,” Emedom said.

She said she chose UC Merced because, like many students, she found the financial aid package attractive. She learned about LLCs when she was researching the campus.

“I’m all for all things Black/Black people so I knew AFRO Hall was the perfect fit for me,” Emedom said.

LLCs provide a greater sense of belonging, and opportunities for building community and making life-long relationships.

Muhammed also chose the campus because of the financial aid, as well as for opportunities to do real research to enhance her chemistry scholarship. But she did want to know about the campus’s diversity before she made her choice and whether there were any groups to support students of color.

“I got interested in LLCs because of the opportunities they offer through mentorships, various events and notifications about special things that I would not know about if I wasn't part of the community,” Muhammed said. “Speaking of community, I chose AFRO Hall specifically because of that. I grew up in an area where there were very few people of color, and even fewer that showed a dedication for learning and bettering themselves and others, so when I saw AFRO Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to join.”

LLCs improve the likelihood of academic success because they offer learning support and access to tutoring centers, as well as facilitated connections to faculty, staff and other programs and services on campus. AFRO Hall holds regular study sessions, and residents are expected to participate in four hours of study sessions each week; actively take part in required seminar classes in which they explore their own and other cultures and experiences; and maintain grade point averages (2.75 for first-year residents, 3,0 for second-year residents).

There are other requirements of community members, too, including at least eight hours per semester of community service and attendance at weekly AFRO Hall community gatherings or meetings. Those range from the general residence hall meeting to workshops, social activities and mentorship opportunities.

Williams said the hall welcomes the students from all cultures within the African diaspora and residents get plenty of opportunities to learn about cultures within the diaspora that are different from their own.

The LLC was established by student leaders of the AFRO Organization, run by sociology Professor Whitney Pirtle, to unite students in the African diaspora and to increase retention and four-year graduation rates.

One of the factors in retention is the experience students have at an institution. AFRO Hall encourages students to branch out and try new things, discover new interests and meet new people.

“Due to the volunteer hours requirement in the hall, I found myself helping more in the community, cleaning parks and handing out food. I even eventually ended up joining the Rotaract Club on campus,” Muhammed said. “One of the older students found out that I did sports in high school and prompted me to join the Track and Cross-Country team, which has been a great experience. I also was able to attend the Black Excellence Symposium for 2023.”

Emedom said that from her perspective as an older participant, she would absolutely recommend AFRO Hall to first-year students.

“It is a great way to meet others who share so much in common with you and it’s a place where so many new and meaningful connections can be made,” she said.

Muhammed agreed.

“The best part of my experience in AFRO Hall has been the other people within the hall,” she said. “AFRO Hall has always been very open and welcoming, with lots of efforts to be inclusive.”