BEST foot forward
Yenka Truitt (AB '08) was a freshman at UGA when she woke one morning at 3 a.m. with an earache. She had an interview scheduled with the housing department that day and it was the middle of the night, but Truitt knew exactly who to call—her BEST mentor, who provided food and medicine, prepped her for the interview and asked Truitt to call and let her know how it went.
"It was a home away from home," Truitt says of UGA's Black Educational Support Team. "I could call somebody and say, 'I don't know what's going on on campus, or I need help with this class,' and people were there for me. I wanted to do the same thing for somebody else."
So during her sophomore year, Truitt became a BEST mentor. And she continued to be involved, serving as co-team leader (with Ashley Brantley) for about 40 counselors and more than 350 freshmen during the 2007-08 school year.
BEST was founded in 1990 with the goal of retaining more African-American students by providing upperclassmen counselors for freshmen and transfers. Since 1998, the retention rate for African-American freshmen consistently has been 93 percent or above and is usually higher than the retention rate for all freshmen.
"They have a strong concept of team," says Amy Anderson, who became BEST's adviser in February. "They're good at attracting students and working with them on a one-on-one level as far as being available to them when they have questions, if they need a ride to Wal-Mart, [or] finding their way around campus."
BEST counselors mentor up to eight freshmen, getting in touch during the summer even before the students arrive on campus. They check in by phone and email and plan activities like bowling, a game of Twister, cooking dinner or just getting together to talk. They offer advice and sometimes provide a shoulder to cry on. Counselors also point their charges toward student services—such as tutoring and financial aid—and social organizations that will help them meet people and get involved on campus.
The idea is not just to retain freshmen, but to help them evolve and eventually earn a degree. That means students may drift out as they find their niche at UGA, says Truitt, who graduated in May with a degree in sociology.
"In the beginning our numbers tend to be really high, but we expect for it to dwindle because we want our students to go out and become part of other student organizations," she says.
Freshman Kendra Abercrombie sang in her church choir at home and was looking for something similar when she came to UGA. She joined the African-American Choral Ensemble after learning about it from her mentor, sophomore Laura Picott.
Abercrombie was pleased to learn that Picott is also a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; the two attend services together every week. And like others who've been through the program, Abercrombie applied and was chosen to serve as a BEST counselor next year.
"Laura and a few other counselors just guided me through freshman year and gave me opportunities that I probably wouldn't have had if I hadn't been in the program," she says. "I wanted to be able to do the same for someone next year."
Abercrombie knows firsthand how easy it can be to give up—one of her friends left UGA fall semester after becoming convinced that he couldn't fit in. But with BEST, freshmen at UGA have a safety net.
"Georgia is a big school," Truitt says, "and sometimes you need somebody that says, 'Hey, you can do it. How did class go today? It's going to be all right.'"
Black Educational Support Team: www.uga.edu/best