A college degree can be an important step for starting a career, but many colleges and universities struggle to create a welcoming environment for students of color. Angela Fitzgerald sits down with Tiffany Tardy from All-In Milwaukee, a nonprofit working to improve college retention and graduation rates for students from underserved communities.
Tiffany Tardy talks about her difficulties adjusting to college life.
How can colleges and universities improve graduation rates for students of color?
Breaking down higher ed graduation rates for students of color.
Tiffany Tardy is the Program Director for All-In Milwaukee, an organization providing financial aid, advising, program and career support for limited-income college students from the Milwaukee area. She has a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Announcer: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin Original Production.
Angela Fitzgerald: Education is a key to success, right? While college is praised as the conventional path for advancing in society, and underrepresented groups have worked to dismantle exclusionary practices, systemic barriers for students of color to successfully complete a college degree still exist. Let’s find out Why Race Matters in higher education. § § What are the realities for students of color? The civil rights movement has helped make higher education more accessible, but predominantly white universities still struggle to create a welcoming environment. According to a 2017 study, approximately 46% of Black students who started at a four-year public school complete their degrees in six years or less. That’s almost 10 points lower than Hispanic students, and more than 20 points lower than white or Asian students. Are there solutions to make higher education more inclusive and improve graduation rates for all students? In this episode of Why Race Matters, we talk to Tiffany Tardy, a graduate of UW-Madison, where she was part of PEOPLE, a program that helps students from underserved communities obtain a degree. She’s now a Milwaukee-based program director at a nonprofit working to improve retention and graduation rates for underrepresented groups. Hi, Tiffany. How are you doing today?
Tiffany Tardy: I’m well. Thank you, Angela. How are you?
Angela Fitzgerald: I’m doing great, thank you. So appreciate you taking the time to travel all the way from Milwaukee to come spend time with us and tell us a little bit about your story.
Tiffany Tardy: Absolutely, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me, even with the traffic, right?
Angela Fitzgerald: So, I guess to get us started, where should we get started? Do you wanna tell us about, like, kind of your role and the work that you do?
Tiffany Tardy: Sure, so I currently work at All-In Milwaukee. I just celebrated my three-year anniversary, actually.
Angela Fitzgerald: Congratulations.
Tiffany Tardy: Thank you. At All-In Milwaukee, we are a college completion program supporting students from the city of Milwaukee from limited-income backgrounds into their futures in higher education. So, we provide scholarship support, which is something that attracts students to the program, but then we also are providing supplemental advising, financial literacy. We’re providing career development support, as well as this one-on-one advising relationship with our students to really support them through their journeys in college. So I have been working in higher education for 15 years now, specifically related to retention programs of students of color, students from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds, and students from limited income backgrounds.
Angela Fitzgerald: Love that, and there’s so much we can unpack, and we will get to that.
Tiffany Tardy: Sure.
Angela Fitzgerald: In a second, but in terms of the focus of All-In Milwaukee, are students from any institution eligible to work with you all, or do you focus on certain higher ed institutions?
Tiffany Tardy: Oh, great question. So, we have eight different universities that we work with with All-In Milwaukee, and those universities are committing to support our students in our program through kind of multiple layers here. So the university partners have to commit to a last-dollar scholarship agreement, which means that they will put All-In Milwaukee scholarship dollars on top of any other aid the university is already giving students so that the dollars can go further for that student’s experience in college. They give us a kind of point person, a liaison that we call them, on each campus that will help us navigate because college can be so complex, it can be so bureaucratic, and so we have that one point person on each of our campuses that we can kind of help navigate any student issues or any issues that our team may have. And then, we also expect our university partners to really be committed to the work, be transparent about what’s happening on their campuses, and then, really wanting to work together to really, you know, reduce that achievement gap to really support students through completion of college. And so really having, we have annual kind of “step back” conversations where we look at the data, we look at how our students are doing. We look at if there’s any additional resources. Our students are expected to have more resources, so more tutoring, more support from the specialized programs on each of our campuses. We really like to say that our students are the athletic or the academic all-stars, so treat our students like the athletes on campus. Give them the, you know, world-class service is what we expect from our university partners. So, we’re working with those eight institutions here in the state of Wisconsin with the hopes of really building cohorts on each of our campuses and building that community within a community and allowing students to really, you know, feel that comfort because there’s a lot of campus climate issues across the state. Most of our campuses in Wisconsin are predominantly white institutions, and so, when you’re serving students from these limited-income backgrounds, 99% students of color that we’re serving, there’s always gonna be that issue of culture shock or finding belongingness, and so we’re really working hard to really support students through that experience.
Angela Fitzgerald: Ooh, so you said so much again. I’m wanting to take a step back to unpack and also, for those who may not kind of know or be newer to these terms, that you mentioned retention at first. And so that is, I mean, you later said college completion. So, can you just kind of break down what you’re seeing in terms of those retention challenges and how that connects to the work that All-In Milwaukee does?
Tiffany Tardy: When we first started our program, the average family income was under $10,000. Now, a few years later, we’re seeing the average family income’s less than $40,000. So you’re not too far, right, especially when you’re talking about number of people in your family, in your household, from, you know, where our students are the neediest students of the city of Milwaukee and where you’re talking about need, and you’re talking about poverty, right, and the different issues that connect to that, where you’re talking about students who are first generation and may not have any understanding of what college looks like. You’re talking about students who have no idea how they’re gonna pay for college. You’re talking about students who, you know, don’t even understand what their abilities are just yet, right? They don’t even understand that the sky is the limit when it comes to their potential. And so we really are… I mean, that’s why I think I love this so much because they’re such a special group of people, and I think, you know, our work is to, you know, shed light on the fact that you have these beautiful young adults, these kids in the city, who have so much potential, and all they need is the access. All they need is an extra push or an extra hand or somebody to listen to them. Most of our students, again, will sign up for our program and say that they’re signing up for the financial aid support, but if you ask them– we survey them every year– what the most beneficial thing is, is the advisor that they have because our team works really hard to build genuine relationships with these students, to connect with them, to understand their dreams and their hopes, and to really help them develop a plan to get there. And so it goes deeper than even mentorship, I think. You know, I feel like there are so many stories that I could share where I feel like we have saved students’ lives. We’ve really helped, you know, them on a journey that maybe they wouldn’t have been retained had they not had somebody that they could call in the middle of the night or they could call when something goes wrong on campus. That’s what really, really matters to us.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow, I absolutely love that because you’re right. There’s so much that goes into the decision to go to college and then, once you’re there, and if you’re a first-generation college student or someone who has no concept of what that means, there’s even the nuances of, like, new terms. Like, what’s a syllabus? Like, who are these people over here that are supposed to be helping me? I don’t know who they are. I’m not even accessing them. And technically, I’m paying for them ’cause all those fees.
Tiffany Tardy: Tiffany: That’s right.
Angela Fitzgerald: Go towards all these things I might not even be tapping into ’cause I have no clue what they are. Engaging with my professor, what does that mean? That’s different from what I experienced in high school. It’s like all those unwritten rules that you’re just expected to like have a light bulb switch and understand how to navigate to be successful, and students from our communities, from impoverished communities, are less likely to know those rules.
Tiffany Tardy: Tiffany: That’s right.
Angela Fitzgerald: And then how do not knowing the rules impact then your success? And we know it does, right? You just mentioned why it does, and I feel like you also raise kind of the point of like the intersectionality because there is the overarching issue of poverty, but within that, there’s also like the racial implications, too.
Tiffany Tardy: Absolutely.
Angela Fitzgerald: And so kind of even the distinctions between like, okay, students of color versus just a maybe poor student or a low-income student conversation. Like, what might the needs be, even when comparing those two groups?
Tiffany Tardy: Oh, what a great question.
Throw ’em at me, Angela. So what I will say, I think that is just so important, right, is that race is salient, you know, regardless of what we’re experiencing. I mean, up to this point, it’s like we are a high-need program, but we serve, you know, primarily students of color because that’s what the city, right, that’s what’s reflective of our city. What I will say is that we provide this social-emotional support for our students, and it’s really about that connection on campus and that understanding of identity on a campus and really, you know, empowering our students to lean into their identity, to not assimilate, right, and to really be authentic in everything that they do, that we do. I think that was a part of my own journey of, like, how do I, you know, embrace the fact that I’m a Black woman, as opposed to, you know, thinking that it’s problematic? Because being a person of color is not something that you can hide, right? Like, your income, you can hide, but as a person of color, that is the first thing that somebody is going to see. So if you’re walking on a campus like a UW-Madison, for example, then it can be, I think, very, very, you know, triggering, it can be hurtful, it can be harmful, the types of things that you’re gonna experience either in the classroom or just walking across campus, again, things that I’ve experienced myself. So I think that the conversations that we have with students around their identity is really important and really taking the time to get to know themselves. I think for me, and I think for a lot of the students that I’ve worked with, it’s not until you hit college, right? A lot of high schools are very much like either all Hispanic, or, you know, predominantly Black, or, you know, predominantly Asian. And so, you go into this college space, and you don’t even understand that like, there’s actually a whole different feeling and experience as a person of color that you have to negotiate, and our role is to help them navigate those experiences. And so, we have workshops with our students throughout each semester, talking about these really real topics and helping them understand that the feelings are valid. For example, imposter syndrome, and our students talk all the time about whether or not maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I’m not ready for this internship, or maybe I really shouldn’t have come to this school. And so, those psychological issues, those thoughts get to them, and that can just, I mean, I’ve just seen it really destroy a student’s academics, their self-esteem if they have a really rough first semester, which definitely happens, and then, you’re talking about, you know, post-pandemic with virtual learning, a lot of gaps are there for students. And so they start to question themselves as people of color.
And so, that’s what I would say when it comes to, there’s just a difference, right? And you’re having, like you said, you’re having this kind of double whammy where you’re also coming from a limited-income background and as a first-generation student, 95% of our students, right. So you don’t necessarily have all of this social capital. You don’t necessarily understand all of the terminology. And our team is here to bridge those gaps.
Angela Fitzgerald: To me, it addresses, I think, sometimes the equity solutions you see in higher ed or like, scholarship programs. Like, we’ll give them money. That’ll make it easier for them to come. Okay, now that I’m here, what is my experience like, though? And am I likely to stay, or is the money enough, or can I still be successful in spite of the dollars? And so, I like that you are extending beyond like, yeah, funding is essential. You don’t wanna ignore that, but there is something else about my social and emotional wellbeing, especially now with other things being compounded on top of, like, a college student has deadlines and like, responsibilities and all these things to navigate on top of a pandemic, on top of like, racial unrest, and like all this stuff.
Tiffany Tardy: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: So I feel like you all are filling a very necessary gap that I don’t think is always considered when talking about how do we help facilitate, like, these students being at least present on our campus.
Tiffany Tardy: A hundred percent. You know, that’s like usually my biggest kind of qualm is that many campuses, especially when it comes to D&I and, you know, it’s such a buzz term right now, this whole diversity/ inclusion thing, which, I mean, it’s great. I mean, I’m glad that folks are starting to pay attention to this more because the issues aren’t new. We’ve been talking about the same issues for probably a hundred years now, right, when it comes to the achievement gap and the challenges that we’re seeing in our communities around education and higher education, but I think that our campuses tend to focus on, how do we recruit them, how do we get more and more here, how do we do that, but there’s never a retention strategy. It has to be a part of everything that you do. It transcends department. So it can’t just be the multicultural office or the D&I office, or we can go and see the VP of Diversity/ Inclusion, and then, we’re good. That’s not how this works, right? Because that one person or that one office is not in that classroom with that student who has a racist faculty member. But what we can do is, I think, what we’re trying to do is recognize that there are structural issues that are gonna take some time to address, but then how do we equip our students and our team with the tools to navigate the structures that exist already?
Angela Fitzgerald: And, Tiffany, how did you get into this work? ‘Cause it sounds personal as well as professional.
Tiffany Tardy: Great question. It is; my story is very personal. Why I do this work is very personal. So, I am born and raised in the city of Milwaukee. I went to kind of, what I would say, the creme de la creme of schools. I felt very prepared to go to college. I had been a part of the PEOPLE program. I had been visiting UW-Madison for every summer since I was in middle school for pre-college camps of some sort, and then, the PEOPLE program, and I absolutely felt ready. I mean, I graduated top of my class. I was good.
And then, I came to UW-Madison’s campus, and I just, as I would say to my students or my team, I epically failed, you know, my first semester. I completed my first semester with a 2.0 GPA, and I was on academic probation.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Tiffany Tardy: And I don’t even know what happened, you know? It was kind of like you thought that you were ready, and I think that, you know, as you put language to it now, it’s like the culture shock, the first generation piece and not now knowing how to navigate, even though you had all of these things around you, I just completely didn’t get it, and I think I got caught up in just so many other things. I was a STEM major at the time, and I was taking, you know, a terrible credit load that I would never tell anybody else to take. I took 17 credits my first semester, three of them, five-credit courses. It was just a terrible idea. But again, I didn’t have that intentional advising. I didn’t have, you know, somebody who was really, walking, and maybe I won’t say that because I was in the PEOPLE program, but I didn’t take advantage of it. I think, when I first started, I thought I had it all figured out. I mean, I was a smart student.
Angela Fitzgerald: Let me tell you, Tiffany, your story is my story.
Tiffany Tardy: Exactly.
Angela Fitzgerald: I failed, and I had never gotten like less than a B my whole life.
Tiffany Tardy: Exactly.
Angela Fitzgerald: And I was like, how is this possible? So was part of a program and a STEM major. I’m like, how did this happen? So, hearing you, I’m like, we cannot be the only ones.
Tiffany Tardy: We’re not because I’ve had this story, I’ve talked about this multiple times, and I get that often. These students who graduate the top of their class or who are doing very well are not guaranteed to succeed in college,
and we’re very living witnesses of that. And I share that with our students often because you do, you go in expecting this perfection, and that’s just not what happens. And so, yes, I completed my first semester. I went back home. I said, I wasn’t going back.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Tiffany Tardy: Thank goodness for my mother, who said, you’re going back.
Angela Fitzgerald: She’s like, yes, you are.
Tiffany Tardy: Yes, you’re going back to school. I mean, what else are you gonna do? And so, I did go back, and I made some adjustments. I definitely got myself reconnected with my advisors in the PEOPLE program. I did some things very differently, and I think what really made the difference for me was I got connected. I got engaged with, like, my sorority, I got engaged with the Black Student Union, as opposed to just like wallowing in the experience that I was having as a woman of color because again, in those science classrooms, you know, calculus or in chemistry, I was one of very few. Even my PEOPLE people weren’t in that room, right. And so it was very taxing to go into a chemistry lab, and you have to work with a group of people, and like, nobody wants to, you know, work with you. They’re all moving their chairs away from you kind of thing. And who knows what it was about, but what I felt, right, was something that was really, really hurtful. And so those types of experiences really impacted, you know, my ability to perform, I think, in a lot of ways, coupled with the fact that I probably shouldn’t have been taking the courses that I was taking. But when I came back, I really committed to being that change, and I think that is where the impetus of my whole career was, was like, I don’t want another student to experience what I experienced, and I know that I can have part in that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow, so literally, your life experiences are sort of served as the foundation, the springboard for the way you’re able to support students now.
Tiffany Tardy: Exactly, exactly. All of the things that I wish I had is what we try to give to our students, every possibility of filling gaps, of reducing barriers, of just being accessible. Like, we like to say, we walk alongside them. Like, I want nobody to feel like they’re in it alone, and I think that I had those moments where I felt like I was in it alone. And I also, I think about the fact that I did have this great support program, which is why we are a lot more intentional, a lot more proactive with our students. We are all up in their business. We tell them that upfront.
They sign a release upfront because we want to be that, and, of course, you’re not gonna keep every student, but right now, we have 94% of our students still enrolled after three years.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s amazing.
Tiffany Tardy: And two of them being a pandemic. So that says a lot, I think, about the students that we serve and about the structure and the program that we’ve built.
Angela Fitzgerald: All campuses should want All-In Milwaukee present because you’re literally supplementing what they are limited in what they can offer, and I mean, it looks good for them when the students are retained and graduate. Those numbers reflect positively on them, too.
Tiffany Tardy: That’s right. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Angela Fitzgerald: A symbiotic relationship here, absolutely. But we understand, at least at this time, that All-In Milwaukee can’t be everywhere. So for people who are watching our conversation, and maybe there’s two camps we can talk to, and you can speak to differently. One side may be the education side of the camp, and they’re like, what can we do? We’re observing these challenges. You all aren’t on our campus. We want to improve retention. What recommendations do you have for them? And then, for the everyday person, who is maybe a student or an aspiring student, and also, you all are not present where they’re maybe considering going, what suggestions do you have for them to help enhance their likelihood of success?
Tiffany Tardy: Oh, great question. So for my colleagues in education, I think my first response is to get out of the conference room and do something, right. And so, I don’t know what that–
– No more meetings?
Tiffany Tardy: Let’s not have a meeting to plan for the meeting to plan for the next meeting to understand what D&I is. I think we have to think about, and I understand, like, there’s structure, there’s all of these red tape, I get that.
But I think we have to think about what’s within our sphere of influence. And that’s something that I think all of us as professionals can do. ‘Cause All-In Milwaukee, as an external partner, we have to go into those campuses and identify the allies and the resources and the folks that are gonna get it, and so I would encourage our colleagues to do the same thing. Like, you know, the like-minded folks on your campuses, and if you don’t, you should go and look for those folks. And then, how do you then come together to really, you know, tackle this issue or something that you’re seeing? I think that I would add to say that, you know, if you’re seeing something, if you’re seeing patterns of behavior, if you’re seeing, you know, this same faculty person’s name is coming up in your advising sessions, then what are you gonna do with that information? And that’s where I think I’ve really learned in navigating the higher education space is to have the evidence, have the data, and that’s something that, again, that we can all do. Like, take the notes, right? Like, you know, present those notes, actually go and look at the data, ask for the data. Everybody has an institutional research office on their campuses that you can really… And now, I don’t know what red tape they’re gonna put you through to get to that–
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Tiffany Tardy: But I think that we can really push on, and we can ask the questions. I think ‘ask the questions’ is what I would really tell our colleagues to do. And then the final thing I would say to my colleagues in education is that I get it. Like, higher education is going through a really, really just interesting time. Like, it’s a really, really strange time for higher ed right now. There’s all of this, you know, flight. Folks are leaving the field altogether. And so, I get the stress of the work. I get how tough it is when you feel like you’re not getting, you know, the support that you need, that you’re not being heard, and you can burn out, you can get exhausted, you can get tired. And so, I a hundred percent understand that. But what I will say is that, you know, if we’re not gonna do it, who’s gonna do it? And so just remember that “why,” and the commitment to the work that you made. And if it’s not right for you, you gotta go do something else and let somebody else come in and make it happen for these students because these babies need us. So if it’s not in your energy anymore, right, then it might be time to reconsider. Now, I’m not trying to encourage higher education flight more than what it is, but I do think that a lot of folks in the work, I mean, it’s hard work, and I think they’re burnt out, and then that impacts the students and the work that we’re doing because you run out of fight, right? I’ve been in that position where you just run out of fight, and you’re tired, but we have to have folks who are willing to be in those rooms, who are willing to stand up, who are willing to speak out and have that courage, right, to advocate for our students because they need it. And then to the students, right, I would say that it’s important to find somebody, a mentor. You know, shout out to our friends at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. They’re doing incredible work on the high school side. There’s a lot of really good work happening on the pre-college side in our city, and I think that students just need to tap into that.
And if you haven’t tapped in, reach out to me. I’ll give you my information because we can make sure that you get connected in your community. This is not a journey that you want to go on alone. We cannot do it alone.
There’s just so many different layers. There’s so many things that students need to learn and understand this sort of hidden curriculum that they talk about on this higher education journey. And that’s something that we’re really trying to also support our students on, on the career side of things. We wanna make sure that students get into careers, so I would say to that, you know, young student who’s thinking about college, you wanna make sure that you get connected. You wanna make sure that you’ve identified a mentor, an ally, or something on that campus.
And if it’s not in high school, if it’s you’re going directly into college, and you need to get connected right away, so go find that cultural affinity group. Student organizations are a great place to start in really building community and finding folks who are on campus, who are gonna really be there for you. So you gotta find a mama.
You gotta find somebody on that campus that’s gonna be able to help you navigate it because when we feel like we’re doing it alone, I think that’s where you have those feelings that you can’t do it, and you really just might need somebody to just listen to you and process through the things that you’re feeling ’cause they’re normal, and we’ve all experienced them, but it is attainable. It really is attainable. You can do it, so.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yes. So take action on the educator side. Find your person on the student side.
Tiffany Tardy: That’s right.
Angela Fitzgerald: Tiffany, it has been a pleasure talking with you. You’ve been such a great inspiration, and I hope that our viewers take so much away from our conversation today.
Tiffany Tardy: Thank you so much, Angela, for having me. This was awesome. I love talking about this stuff.
[both laughing warmly]
Angela Fitzgerald: Higher education is instrumental for wellbeing in our society; however, the repercussions of Jim Crow segregation linger in academia, creating additional hurdles for students from underrepresented groups to navigate. By understanding the barriers to a college degree, we can better work together to find solutions to help current and future generations of students. Watch additional episodes at pbswisconsin.org/ whyracematters.
Announcer: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by Park Bank, CUNA Mutual Group, Madison Area Technical College, Alliant Energy, UW Health, Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programs, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.
There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it. Read full statement here.