MOUNT STERLING, Ohio — By most accounts, Melvin Saulsberry has experienced enough traumatic setbacks in his life that the last place you’d expect to find him would be on a college campus.
When he was just 17 years old, his mother passed away, and his father has been incarcerated for as long as he can remember.
But come this May, the 21-year-old sophomore at Broward College in Florida is expected to earn his associate’s degree and plans to eventually transfer to The Ohio State University, where he has dreams of studying nutrition.
“It’s been pretty rough,” says Saulsberry, who lives with his older sister and has taught himself how to apply for financial aid and negotiate the complicated terrain of being a full-time student. “I’ve got set off-track, but the important thing is that I got back on.”
Despite the dismal statistics of Black male college dropout rates that continue to dominate the national headlines, Saulsberry is not an anomaly. There are others just like him, who despite difficult circumstances, have plowed forward and are determined to earn a college degree.
This past weekend, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native joined nearly 100 other Black male undergraduate students who journeyed to Deer Creek State Park in Ohio to participate in the ninth annual African American Male retreat sponsored by the Todd A. Bell National Resource Center at The Ohio State University.
“I wanted Black males across campuses to recognize and understand that there are other Black males across the nation experiencing the same things they’re experiencing and that way they’re able to build a network that they can tap into,” says Tai A. Cornute, the program coordinator for the Bell Center who has organized the retreats for the past four years. “What I think is more pressing is a charge, that they should take what they learn here and take it back to their communities and inform their peers and friends who aren’t here while being an ambassador for what it means to be a positive Black male in America today.”
By the end of the two and a half day retreat, Saulsberry and others had made new friends from the seven colleges represented. Collectively, they vowed that they would return back to their campuses with a renewed focus to not only help each other get through the college experience, but to graduate at the top of their class.
“This kind of gathering rarely happens in our respective universities,” says Ali Elbusher, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who says that being a Black male on a college campus in America today can be an isolating experience. “I feel a real sense of unity having met brothers who are doing great things on their campus. I feel inspired.”
OSU’s African American Male Retreat is just one model that President Obama may want to examine in the wake of his decision last week to create My Brother’s Keepers, an ambitious initiative that partners the federal government with private foundations to create and duplicate efforts to help Black boys and young Black men become successful and engaged citizens.
It’s an issue that Dr. James L. Moore III, who directs the Bell Center at OSU, is quite passionate about.
“I think it’s very important that we create venues and spaces where young men can fully develop cognitively, emotionally, socially, financially and also as a community,” says Moore, who is also an associate provost and holds a distinguished professorship in education. “This experience gives us an opportunity to bond, to have those kinds of frank conversations that students don’t often have the opportunity to have, particularly at White institutions.”
Over the weekend, a number of high-profile Black male academicians, including Dr. Jerlando F.L Jackson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Bryant T. Marks of Morehouse College, Dr. Lamont A. Flowers of Clemson University and Drs. Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Samuel R. Hodge of OSU encouraged the young men to continue to push for academic excellence.
While many colleges have allocated new resources to find solutions to address the shrinking number of Black males who enroll and graduate from their institutions, OSU has become a national leader on the issue, with spectacular outcomes. The Bell Center is inundated with phone calls and campus visits from other institutions asking them to share best practices. As a result of aggressive mentoring and additional support services, nearly 500 of OSU’s Black male students have a 3.0 or higher grade point average. In 2008, the attrition rate over a six-year period for Black males was 44 percent and now is 67 percent — one of the highest increases among other state flagship institutions.
“Certainly when you compare with what is going on in America, I think that’s a significant accomplishment,” says Moore. “Are we satisfied? No. Will we do more? Yes we will. But I’d like to think that at Ohio State University we’ve helped Black males change the way they think about themselves and we’ve also helped the university change the way it thinks about young Black males.”
Now, with Obama’s new initiative, Moore says that he’s encouraged that the plight of Black males may finally get the national attention it deserves.
“African-American males are often seen as part of a group rather than an individual and the stigma of inferiority follows them everywhere they go,” Moore says. “What I hope the Obama administration understands is that the experience of Black males is not limited to low income and poor. We’re losing black males throughout the pipeline even when you control for geographic locations and whether they’re first or second generation.”
This is the first in a series of occasional stories focused on Black males in higher education. Jamal Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson