Fewer than 13 percent of the students enrolled at Chattanooga State Community College are black, and data show these students are much more likely to drop out than their white peers.
Aware of that, Nesha Evans aims to make the school more welcoming to black and Latino students and offer support to help them overcome obstacles to earning a certificate or diploma.
"I'm a walking exclamation point for black students on campus," said Evans, coordinator of the college's Building Outstanding Service Scholars program, known as BOSS.
The BOSS program helps the transition from high school to college, offering everything from mentorship and community to academic support. About 80 students participate each year, and BOSS students have a higher retention rate than the college's average.
Forty-eight percent of BOSS students who started at Chattanooga State in the fall of 2015 returned in fall 2016, according to the college's data. That's compared to just 33 percent of black students and 41 percent for the entire student body in the same period.
Evans' work focuses on providing students with a place of belonging on campus and encouraging them to explore their identities.
"Students need to know who they are and their history," Evans said. "It helps them relate to the world."
This focus comes to life every Wednesday during the program's BOSS talks, which bring students together for a check-in and a time to process weighty topics, such as the toxic affect poverty can have on education and what it means to be black or Latino in America.
Marcus Hudson, a BOSS student who recently graduated from Brainerd High School, said he looks forward to the Wednesday conversations.
"It gives us a chance to talk about our lives," he said. "It makes us closer, too."
The BOSS program's focus on celebrating black culture is spreading into classrooms, as Dan Rose, a sociology professor at Chattanooga State, was inspired to modify his Introduction to Sociology course to be more "afro-centric."
Rose now teaches the class through a black American lens, and many of the desks in his class are filled by BOSS students. It's important for students to learn from curriculum that relates to them, and for their education to be relevant, he said.
"Most sociology classes skip over the fact that W.E.B. Du Bois was the founder of American sociology," Rose said. "In this class we start there."
Du Bois, a black man, was a sociologist and civil rights activist, and throughout the course students are forced to connect what they're learning about sociology with today's society and race relations.
In a recent class, Rose asked students to explain the difference between race and ethnicity in preparation for their final take-home exam. He later asked them to compare and contrast the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s to Black Lives Matter.
Deonna Patterson, a recent Central High School graduate, said it's refreshing to be able to openly talk about race.
She said a BOSS program trip to Washington, D.C., over spring break was the highlight of her semester, as it built on what she's been learning in Rose's class.
She said visiting places like the African American History Museum and abolitionist and writer Fredrick Douglass' house gave her a deeper understanding and appreciation for her culture and heritage.
Debbie Adams, interim president of Chattanooga State, said too often, low-income and underrepresented college students across the country are less likely to complete their degrees.
"Our [BOSS] program is an intentional part of our student success efforts in bridging the gaps for African American and Latino students," she said. "We are committed to providing all students who come to Chattanooga State a path to achieving their dreams."
Terrell Borders started at Chattanooga State after graduating from Tyner Academy, and said that after meeting Evans he knew he wanted to be in the BOSS program.
"She serves as a second mom to many of us," Borders said. " When you're off track she helps you get back on track. Sometimes you need that."
For Evans, the point of the program is to create a community that helps students feel like they belong at the college.
"BOSS allows students to support each other," she said. "They pull each other along."
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.