ExCEL Helps Aggies from Under-Represented Communities Find Their Place on Campus.
Lyndon Pryor ’04 isn’t sure where he would be today without Texas A&M University’s ExCEL program. The Houston native remembers struggling academically and having difficulty finding his place on campus as a traditionally underserved student during his freshman year.
He considered dropping out of college, but decided instead to follow his African-American classmates’ advice and join ExCEL (which stands for Excellence uniting Culture, Education and Leadership). He soon tapped into the organization’s offerings, which included study groups, tutoring and social connections. Thanks to the program, Pryor changed his academic trajectory and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Serving as a respected ExCEL student leader and mentor also helped Pryor discover his passion for helping others. He earned a master’s degree in higher education administration at George Washington University and then returned to Texas A&M as a student development specialist. He now serves as the program manager for health education and policy for the Louisville Urban League in Kentucky.
The ExCEL program, which is part of the Department of Multicultural Service, marks its 30th anniversary in 2017. The program originated in 1987 as the Minority Freshmen Orientation. “The program grew out of students’ concerns about having limited opportunities to interact, engage and connect at Texas A&M in ways that were meaningful to them,” said Dr. Tonya Driver, the director of the Department of Multicultural Services. “Students at the time expressed a need to preserve their cultural identities while transitioning to Texas A&M, which was very relevant to emerging research at that time and has only deepened over the years.”
Since its inception, ExCEL’s format has varied but its dedication to fostering a sense of community for Aggies from diverse cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds hasn’t wavered. “During my New Student Conference, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” said Taylor Cotton ’17. “A lot of organizations had exhibits but I didn’t see any that I could truly connect with or feel passionate about. Then I came across the ExCEL table. I spoke with the representative who told me that the program was designed to help minority students to feel acclimated, find a home at Texas A&M and grow academically, socially and culturally.” Cotton, who is majoring in business management, signed up immediately.
In recent years, ExCEL’s mission has expanded to include helping underrepresented students – some of whom are the first in their families to seek a college education -- succeed academically. The program has maintained at least a 75% six-year graduation rate since the 2006 cohort and boasts a 91% retention rate. “ExCEL transforms the lives of students and connects them to Texas A&M in ways that help them stay here and graduate,” Driver said.
Pryor and Cotton are two of approximately 3,500 traditionally underserved students who have received assistance from ExCEL since 1996. The program’s goal is to work with 300 incoming freshmen annually.
ExCEL kicks off each academic year with a freshman conference. The 2016 conference, set for August 26, will focus on the theme “ExCEL 2016: Around the World.” The agenda includes peer discussion groups, peer-to-peer and faculty/staff mentoring, social identity development, social networking and cultural showcases.
Freshmen continue to remain engaged with ExCEL throughout the school year through a series of programmatic options, including seminars and activities relevant to specific cultural communities. They also have support from ExCEL peer mentors; these upperclassmen help freshmen navigate difficult experiences that may arise during their first year in Aggieland. In addition, these mentors are tasked with creating a sense of academic accountability so that the freshmen focus on their studies.
Ultimately, ExCEL fosters the next generation of leaders. Cotton, who will be the ExCEL executive director in 2016-2017, serves as a prime example. As a sophomore, she was assigned to mentor a small group of freshmen. “Mentoring other students through ExCEL really helped me improve my leadership skills,” she said. “I managed eight to 10 students, all of whom had different personalities and different ways they needed encouragement.”
Pryor also sees ExCEL’s influence on his own professional success. “ExCEL helped me become motivated and grounded,” he said. “That program has opened so many doors for me.”
You can support the ExCEL program with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation. For additional information about how to benefit this program, contact Megan Pulliam.