Extraordinary Gifts Often Come in Plain Brown Wrappers

Fall 1999 Masthead

Fred A. Bonner, II
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH

Giftedness is a concept that has fascinated, perplexed, and even infuriated us as a nation. We are fascinated by the acumen of the young scholar, capable of processing inordinate amounts of information, ultimately engaging us in dialogue far beyond our pre-conceived perceptions of the individual’s ability. We are perplexed by the virtuoso, capable of performing at levels unimagined by renowned experts in the various fields. Yet, many of us are sometimes infuriated by our continued focus on the high achiever, at what we perceive to be to the detriment of the average or low achiever. Regardless of our stance on this topic, we all have been exposed to individuals displaying extraordinary abilities in some area of selected interest.

A primary means of identifying and subsequently cultivating giftedness has been through assessment and enrichment initiatives. Individuals are typically assessed at some point along the K-12 continuum. The assessment procedure is followed by placement in courses with a curriculum designed to buttress those identified gifts and talents and to subsequently provide the students with the necessary challenges to reach their academic potential. Although we have made great strides in educating gifted students at the K-12 level, we have not made a concomitant effort to assess and cultivate gifts and talents at the postsecondary level, especially the gifts and talents displayed by the African-American postsecondary student. We seem to collectively ignore the giftedness displayed by students during the K-12 experience once they enter the halls of academia.

If our focus does happen to highlight the gifted, it is typically relegated to an honors college director who often prescribes a dose of accelerated courses, followed by an elixir of community service. According to Ford, Webb, and Sandidge (1994), “the psychological, cultural, and social issues confronting gifted college students have received only scant attention. One of the more plausible explanations for this paucity is the myth that gifted college students have no problems” (p. 36).

Another widely held assumption is that gifted students leave behind their gifts and talents once they become 18 (Daniel, 1985). Yet, do we in higher education concern ourselves with the social, emotional, and psychosocial issues these students confront? Does the gifted student experience college in a manner much different from the typical college student? More specifically, does the academically gifted African-American student experience college in a manner much different from the typical college student?

In a recent qualitative research investigation, I uncovered a number of issues confronted by two academically gifted African-American male college students. This study focused on these students’ perceptions of how their respective institutions cultivated their academic giftedness. Phenomenology was selected as the theoretical orientation to guide the study. Phenomenology addresses the structure and essence of an individual’s experience of a particular phenomenon. The phenomenon selected for the investigation was a relationship—the relationship these two students maintained with their institutions (Patton, 1990).

Before I briefly share my findings, I must reveal the limitations of the study. The focus of this research investigation was limited to the perceptions of one academically gifted African-American male undergraduate student attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and one academically gifted African-American male undergraduate student attending a Traditionally White Institution (TWI). These two students serve as case studies representing unique individual contexts and experiences, thus findings are not meant to be representative of every institution of higher education in the nation, nor are they representative of every academically gifted African-American male undergraduate.

Although giftedness is recognized from an array of different perspectives (e.g., Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Renzulli’s Three Ring Conception, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory, Tannenbaum’s Five Factor Theory), and through a myriad of different identification procedures (e.g., achievement, creativity, and intelligence tests; parent, peer, self, and teacher nominations; and product evaluations), this study focused on academic giftedness. Sometimes referred to as schoolhouse giftedness, academic giftedness can be measured by IQ or other cognitive ability tests (Sternberg & Davidson, 1986).

Through observations, interviews, and the collection of written documents, findings from the study revealed six emergent categories relating to the students’ perceptions of how their institutions had cultivated their academic giftedness. The first category was relationship with faculty. Perhaps the most telling piece of information in the entire study, both students overwhelmingly reported that an on-going relationship with the faculty was the most important factor in encouraging their academic achievement.

One case study participant attending reported, “If I had problems outside the classroom, I could go to any of the professors. They really instilled the confidence within me.” The literature suggests that the impact of faculty on student norms, values, and attitudes, as well as faculty members’ impact as role models, is enhanced when student-faculty interactions extend beyond the formal classroom setting (Pascarella, 1980).

The second category uncovered was peer relationships. Genuine relationships within and outside the students’ disciplinary fields were necessary for reasons ranging from personal wellness to academic support. The importance of these relationships was revealed in the student’s statement, “When it comes time for studying, it’s always good to study in groups or something like that. If I didn’t know something, I could always call one of my classmates, you know other students . . . they’re real important.”

The peer support system was viewed as a significant factor in the overall higher educational experience of both students, regardless of the two different institutional contexts. The weight of evidence is quite clear that both the frequency and quality of the students’ interactions with peers and their participation in extracurricular activities were positively associated with persistence in matriculating and subsequently graduating from an institution of higher learning.

The third category cited in the study was family influence and support. Participants drew heavily on their immediate family unit—father, mother, brother, and sister. The maternal influence was cited in both cases as the primary source of encouragement and support on academically and non-academically related issues, although the father was a present and active participant in the lives of both student participants.

In commenting on the influence his mother exerted on his academic achievement, one student posited, “I use the same patterns that she started me out with when I first got in school—as far as kindergarten. I use the same ones up in college [sic]. I haven’t changed. I was actually asked a question about that earlier last semester and they asked me how do I make a GPA or why is it that I am so studious and . . . it all goes back to my mother.” According to Kulieke and Kubilius (1989), while there is little direct work on the values espoused by gifted or creative individuals, their parents tend to espouse values related to the importance of academic achievement, working hard, success, and being active and persistent.

The fourth category identified was factors influencing college selection. This category revealed the rationale behind their selection of their respective institutions. A litany of factors was mentioned, including institutional location and size, number of minority students, parental affiliation, and campus climate. The students perceived that each of these factors would have a direct impact on their success and the cultivation of their academic giftedness. For example, one respondent reported, “. . . since I have been going here, I’m really glad. I am more able to understand the subject at hand as opposed to a large campus. I had classmates to attend large schools and they are way behind because they don’t have any type of reaction [sic] . . . I mean interaction with their professors, they are just basically numbers and I didn’t think that would be good for me or my understanding of certain things.” The other respondent reported, “. . . Since both of my parents are alumni of this institution, they kind of said, ‘Oh, you gotta go to my alma mater’ or something like that . . . and I was always hearing how, you know, my school is ‘number one’.”

The academically gifted African-American male attending the HBCU intimated family tradition, institutional history and mission, and the campus ethos to be the prevailing factors in selecting the institution. Harvey and Williams (1989) found that certain features of Black campus life—a participatory ethos, an inclusive environment, an expectation of success, and an incorporation of a rich historical tradition make these institutions the favored choice of many students. The academically gifted African-American male attending the TWI asserted that demographics, including campus location and size, prevailed in his institutional selection process. He reported a desire to attend a racially diverse institution, but one that provided an environment conducive to academic growth.

The fifth category was self-perception. The students’ reports ranged from, “I guess you could call me gifted” to “I have a lot to improve on, but I like myself.” This category was instrumental in uncovering emotions, feelings, and perceptions held below the surface, beyond the immediate facade the case study participants presented. Both students advanced positive notions regarding their self-perception; institutional context did not appear to differentially influence the positive self-regard reported in their statements. The articulated self-perceptions appeared to serve as important building blocks, essentially the scaffolding these individuals used to affix their academic achievement.

The final category was institutional environment. The students reported the institutional environment as collaborative at the HBCU and competitive at the TWI. Research uncovered a strong desire for a healthy mix of collaboration and competition among students on the college campus. While the HBCU is able to develop supportive institutional climates for Black students without sacrificing academic standards or intellectual capacity, the TWI often presents an environment that is intellectually oriented, achievement oriented, independence oriented, and competition oriented (Hughes, 1987).

While the participant attending the HBCU reported, “. . . it’s a good feeling to be in a partnership with the other students,” the participant attending the TWI lamented, “. . . you’ve got to be ten times as smart as anybody else, especially somebody White, because there is always going to be some type of favoritism or some type of leeway being given to them.” These statements illustrate very different views of the respective campus environments.

Higher education can no longer afford to disregard the unique issues presented by its student populations. A good place to start in addressing these issues is at the very core of the institution, the core representing the mission. Regardless of arbitrary monikers such as Research I or Baccalaureate II, the overall mission of any academy of higher learning should address student learning. Yet, we must recognize that student learning is a holistic process that takes into account differences in the learner, differences in the environment, and differences in the instructional process.

This study highlighted the experiences of two academically gifted African-American male undergraduates attending two postsecondary institutions. Findings from the study point to the importance of creating educational environments within the academy that attract, satisfy, and sustain all of our student constituent groups. By identifying and meeting the exigent needs of such special populations as the academically gifted, African-American male undergraduate, the entire student population will reap the benefits of enhanced learning and development.

Daniel, N. (1985). School and college: The need for articulation. Roeper Review, 7, 235-237.
Ford, D. Y., Webb, K. S., & Sandidge, R. F. (1994). When gifted kids grow up. Gifted Child Today, 17, 34-42.
Harvey, W. B., & Williams, L. E. (1989). Historically black colleges: Models for increasing representation. Education and Urban Society, 21, 328-340.
Hughes, M. S. (1987). Black students’ participation in higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28, 532-545.
Kulieke, M. J., & Kubilius, P. M. (1989). The influence of family values and climate on the development of talent. In J. VanTassel Baska & P. M. Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns of influence on gifted learners: The home, the self and the school (pp. 40-59). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Pascarella, E. T. (1980). Student-faculty informal contact and college outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 50, 545-595.
Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Sternberg, R. J., & Davidson, J. (1986). Conceptions of giftedness. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


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