The low numbers of African-American males seeking higher education is a problem that has been talked about, written about, and studied. Now, some colleges and universities seem willing to put their money where their mouths are.
Most institutions, according to Dr. Walter Allen, professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles and a leading researcher on Black students in higher education, have been resistant or ineffective in increasing minority representation. “But when there are programs, the impetus for those programs is usually individuals of color from the underrepresented groups.
Without that kind of push and pressure, the schools would not in all likelihood make adjustments and provisions for dealing with the needs of underrepresented students.”
The impetus for one such program is Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and architect of the Meyerhoff Program — a program designed to try and do something about the disparities in education among African-American males.
When created in 1988, the aim of the Meyerhoff program was to increase the number of African Americans males who earn doctorates — and ultimately improve the number of minority college faculty in engineering, medicine and the sciences.
Because other initiatives have come under legal scrutiny for discrimination, the program was opened to African-American women in 1990 and other ethnic groups in 1996. But the primary focus is still on the issues and concerns of African Americans — men, in particular. Hrabowski is proud of his success. “This year, I have a basketball player graduating with a 4.0 grade point average in biology — the first in the history of the university. And a student [is] on his way to Duke University to an M.D./Ph.D. program. Another [is] on the way to Harvard and five going to Stanford in engineering. All were Meyerhoff students and about sixty percent of them are male.”
During its eight-year span, 276 students have been Meyerhoff students, including the current 190. Hrabowski is proud of his 95 percent graduation rate — which translates to eighty-six graduates, of which: forty Lire in PhD programs; eighteen in MD/ PhD programs; eighteen in medical schools; four in masters programs in engineering; and six working, with future plans for graduate school.
Mentoring: A Critical Component
Hrabowski feels that it is important for African-American males to have role models. “The challenge we face is creating role models of smart Black males who can help other little boys to want to be like them,” he says.
Dr. Eric Abercrombie, director of the African American Cultural and Research Center and the Office of Ethnic Programs and Services at the University of Cincinnati, agrees. He created the “Black Man Think Tank” in 1983, which has become a mecca for Black male academicians concerned with addressing the issue of Black male students in higher education. The Think Tank has spearheaded a mentoring and leadership program which matches undergraduate Black male students with Black male professionals — and even with some nonprofessional staff, such as custodians, “We do this because often the reasons students fail are not academic but things, like not knowing how to set priorities.
Being balanced in male-female relations, and not really being able to be sacrificing,” explains Abercrombie, “There is also an emphasis on In living lives committed to our people — of giving back to our race and serving as peers and mentors to younger brothers and sisters.” Dr. Lee Jones, director of the Office Of Multi-Cultural Student Services at Washington State University and assistant professor of Educational Leadership, says Abercrombie had been his mentor and has influenced the work lie has done with young African-American men, both at Washington State University and, previously, at Ohio State University.
Jones’s program at Washington State, called “100 African American Men,” uses a lot of mentoring and brings Black male students together to deal with the issues affecting them. Each incoming freshman or transfer student is assigned a male faculty mentor. “I think a lot of our young Men need African-American men providing leadership,” Jones, says.
Earlier in the Pipeline
Byron Bullock, associate vice president for student affairs at James Madison University, and Dr. Carol Hardy, CEO of Stuart Educational Leadership, Inc, have decided to attack the problem earlier in the pipeline. Bullock says reading about the dismal statistics concerning Black males made him decide it was time to do something. So in 1994, he proposed what is now the James Madison University Academy for the Academic Achievement of African American Males.
Designed as a pre-college summer academy, the focus is to increase the numbers of African-American men seeking higher education. Through classes, seminars and field trips, it teaches leadership skills with emphasis on preparing the young men to be more involved in the collegiate environment when they do attend colleges and universities.
“If you look at what is happening in college communities, you see very few African-American males involved in the mainstream of campus life,” observes Bullock. “They are either engaged in athletics or get somewhat lost in the shuffle. We try to help them create a support system from within.”
Hardy left a position as college dean at William and Mary College in Virginia to start her own company and to devote full time to dealing with the problems affecting African-American youth in higher education. In June, she held her first summer academy, “Project Guide Right: Boys to Men,” for African-American males, ages twelve through fourteen, who participate in organized sports in their communities.
The program is an intensive three weeks, with students living on campus at Virginia State University and taking academic courses, study skills, and personal and leadership development training. Diversifying Participation While Specifying Focus One of the reasons colleges may not be creating programs is because of recent court challenges to race- and gender-specific programs.
Abercrombie says that the Black Man Think Tank has “not been impacted [by the legal debate] but we have given discussion to what’s gone on nationally…. We feel that the things we do in our office can stand the test of what is currently going on. Our African-American research center is for everyone but we don’t make any excuses about the fact that the reason it exists is to focus on the needs and issues and triumphs of African Americans.”
Hrabowski says that the UMBC program receives more than $2 million in private funds from philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. However, because it also receives some federal funds, the program was changed to include females as well as other ethnic groups — including white students. The program is still 55 percent Black male and 85 percent African American. And although 25 percent of this year’s Meyerhoff freshman class is not African American, the program’s focus is still on issues of Black males and Black women in science.
“The idea here is that we need to educate people who are not African American about the issues we face,” explains Hrabowski. “So when these people graduate, they will not only have a degree in science or engineering, they will have had time to reflect and become comfortable with issues of race and gender in our country.”
Bullock says the funding for his program is mixed — coming from the Virginia State Council of Higher Education, James Madison University, and private sources. In his case, the program’s one-gender, one-race focus has not been challenged. That is partly because the state has also provided money for similar programs for other targeted groups — such as women.
“I think we need to deal with that particular population as a separate entity. [Black males] first and foremost need to become secure with who they are and what they are all about — to understand the value of their own culture so that they can contribute and give back,” says Bullock.
Abercrombie agrees, saying, “It is our contention that there are issues that Black males need to be alone to discuss in order to survive and accomplish goals. For the most part nobody cares about Black males achieving [except] Black folk.
Hrabowski sums it up: “The critical question is what commitment will the administration and faculty of each institution make to ensure that in spite of legal obstacles, we continue to educate large numbers of minority young people. If the commitment is there, we can do it.”
College and University Programs Aimed at Young Black Men 1. Project Guide Right: Boys to Men Started: June 1996 Focus: college preparation for African-American males 12-14 who participate in sports
Funding: Virginia State University provides housing; Petersburg Youth Football Association; Ettrick Youth Sports Association
Director: Dr. Carol Hardy
2. African American Male Academy: James Madison University Started: 1994
Focus: providing African-American males in junior and senior high school with an intensive academic summer program and leadership training with school-year follow-up
Funding: Virginia Council of Higher Education, James Madison
University and private funding Director: Mr. Byron Bullock
3. Moyerhoff Scholars: University of Maryland-Baltimore County Started: 1989
Focus: undergraduate preparation to increase the number of African Americans earning terminal degrees in science, engineering, and medicine
Funding: Robert and Jane Meyerhoff; federal grants; private donations Director: Ernestine Baker
4. Black Man Think Tank: University of Cincinnati Started: 1983
Focus: providing undergraduate Black males with mentoring and a forum to deal with issues affecting success in college
Funding: University and private funding
Director: Dr. Eric Abercrombie
5. 100 African American Men: Washington State University Started: Fall 1995
Focus: providing undergraduate Black males with mentoring and a forum to deal with issues affecting success in college
Funding: member dues; private donations; university provides meeting space Director: Dr. Lee Jones,
6. Florida State Progressive Black Men Started: 1989
Focus: Issues and concerns of Black Males Funding: Student Government Associationp Adviser: Pomeroy Brinkley
7. Young Black Scholars: UCLA Started: June 1986
Focus: African-american boys and girls, grades 8-12
Funding: 100 Black Men of Los Angeles; donations from community-based organizations; university provides office support
Director: Dr. Winston Doby
8. Annual African American Male Summit: University of Texas-Austin Started: 1995
Focus: Providing mentoring and forum to discuss issues for undergraduate, high school, middle school, and elementary school Black males in Texas Big-12 schools.
Funding: University Texas-Austin; private donations
Director: Dr. Brenda Burt
9. Toledo EXCEL Started: 1988-89
Focus: helping 50 minority and low-income students in 9th grade program earn scholarships to University of Toledo by summer participation in academic retreats, community service, and high school performance
Funding: University of Toledo; corporate sponsors
Directors: Dr. Helen Cooks and Marion Crooks
Source: Survey conducted by Black issues In Higher Education in conjunction with reporting this article.
Meyerhoff Made the Difference
Although he had many options, it was the genuine caring and support he found in the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Program that made Chester Hedgepeth III choose to enroll there.
“The story I always tell is that all the applications looked the same,” said Hedgepeth, who found out about the Meyerhoff Scholars program from his high school guidance counselor in Salisbury, Md. “But what made the program stand out over the others was what I found during the Selection Weekend visit,” said Hedgepeth, who is now a graduate ram in student in an M.D./Ph.D program molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was really impressed with the feeling that the people there really want all the students to be successful and that they had a personal interest in everyone being successful,” Hedgepeth said.
“That was something that I didn’t experience at the other schools that I’d gone to.” Sometimes, initial impressions can be deceiving. That was not the case for Hedgepeth.
“The next time that it really hit home what a good choice I had made with the Meyerhoff program was at the end of my first year. I could have easily taken summer classes and worked in a lab on campus, but they pushed me to find the best summer internship that I could,” Hedgepeth said. “And I ended up going to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and working in an undergraduate research program there.
It was a really good experience and I met a lot of good people. That’s when I realized they really want me to be the best and were going to offer all the advantages that I would have if I’d gone to Harvard or MIT.” Tove Goldson, currently a Meyerhoff scholar and a senior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, said Selection Weekend had also “opened her eyes” and made the difference in choosing to be a part of the program.
“I loved the family and non-competitive atmosphere,” she said. “At some of the other schools …. students had told me how competitive it was and that everyone just seemed to be for themselves.” Goldson also acknowledged that, if not for the Meyerhoff program, she too might have missed some very valuable summer experiences.
“They put us in environments and have given me opportunities that I would not know where to look for,” she said. “During the academic year, we receive a lot of guidance and don’t feel alone,” Goldson said. “Last year, I took an upper level (graduate) course and, though there were no other Meyerhoff students in the class, other students were taking upper level courses, so I felt supported.”
About the program’s architect, Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Goldson says: “Dr. Hrabowski takes time to have a lot of personal contact with us. He meets with each Meyerhoff class individually and does things like stop us to talk if he sees us while out on the campus. He does that for other students, too. You can tell he really cares.”
Hedgepeth is planning a career in academic medicine doing research. Goldson is planning to enter an M.D./ Ph.D. program next year in pharmacology.
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