February 2, 2021

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At Xavier University of Louisiana, students are supported by faculty who commit to believing in their abilities, meeting them where they are, and identifying where they need additional support.

Xavier University of Louisiana, the country’s only Catholic historically Black university, is home to 3,300 students most from low-income families and many arriving on campus unprepared for the rigors of college.

So how does Xavier consistently produce more Black students who become medical doctors than any other institution in the country? How did XULA come to rank among Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s top 10 universities for improving the economic mobility of poor students after graduation? And what can mainstream institutions learn from XULA’s success?

“It’s almost a communal understanding that basically every child before me, every young person, every student before me is my student, my child, rather than those other people’s,” XULA President Reynold Verret said in an interview for Strada’s “Lessons Earned” podcast. “This is my repository. This is my legacy of knowledge.”

Verret, the son of political refugees, spent part of his childhood in Haiti and part in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where a diverse group of friends and strangers helped his family settle into their new life. “Living with people who are very different and learning to actually enter their worlds and rely on them was something that I learned very much as a child,” he said. 

Always interested in science, Verret pursued a career in biochemistry and immunology and is a researcher in the field. He’s a passionate advocate for more racial diversity in STEM and in the corporate world generally, and he’s devoted to helping students of all backgrounds succeed. 

Here are five ways Verret says XULA creates a culture of success on campus:

  1. Focus on faculty. Academic excellence is a must, and it’s great to have Ph.D.s among your faculty, Verret said. Even more important, though, is to screen faculty candidates for their human skills, their belief in educational equity and the value of every student, and their ability to connect with — and stick with — students until they succeed.

    “As many students will testify, while they are in our class, we may not be loved. But when they leave us afterwards, they will love us and come back,” he said. “And I think our students know that. They know that. And they may forgive other things, but they would not forgive us if we did not have this faculty.”

  2. Believe in and teach the students you have. Not all students arrive at college having had the education they deserve, Verret said. “They’ve got some chink in the armor. How do we repair that?” he said.

    Verret recalls one student who was frustrated to learn he was flunking chemistry, even though he had been at the top of his high school class. What he didn’t understand, Verret said, was that he hadn’t been taught the periodic table. Once he learned it, he moved forward — through XULA and into medical school.

    Today that student is a successful robotic surgeon, and key to his success was the fact that faculty helped him identify and remove the obstacle rather than presuming he just wasn’t up to the task. “Everyone comes with certain chinks, but we fix them,” Verret said. “And when you leave, you leave with the capacity to lead.”

  3. Prioritize collaboration over competition. While many elite schools pride themselves on their selectiveness and encourage students to “look to your right; look to your left” and understand that they must compete to avoid being weeded out, Xavier embraces the opposite mindset.

    Far from encouraging competition to leave their fellow students behind, Xavier faculty challenge students to collaborate and ask: “How do we all come across the finish line?”

  4. Build a culture of service. Regardless of what areas of study they pursue, Verret said, students at his college understand that their learning “will have meaning when they put it to the service of another person.”

    That culture of service, prevalent at many HBCUs, helps students look outside of themselves to find their passion and their purpose. “The expectation that basically you are not here for yourself, but the benefits of everyone else around you, comes very, very deep in our history,” he said, “and I think what you will see among our students is that becomes part of their thinking.”

  5. Start early to identify and encourage students’ talents. Of course setting students up for success starts long before they set foot on a college campus, Verret said.

    It begins with parents and teachers of elementary school students, encouraging their interests and demonstrating confidence in their capabilities. “I’m talking about second- and third-graders — these freaky, curious young people — when you go into their class to see these kids walking around asking these questions, that talent is there, and that talent needs to be cultivated.”

    If they are prepared properly, he said, “They make intelligent choices.”

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