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My Brothers’ Keeper

My Brothers’ Keeper

University of West Georgia program focuses on creating a brotherhood of successful Black male students.

By Ernest Holsendolph

Carrollton, Ga.
Dressed in crisp white shirts and ties, a group of African-American men are in a deep discussion about Black manhood. The discussion is led by Dr. Said L. Sewell III, an assistant professor of political science at the University of West Georgia. The students, all freshmen, live together, counsel together and reinforce one another in the effort to learn, achieve — and graduate.

Called the West Georgia Learning Community, the students under Sewell’s tutelage are learning to trust one another, almost as brothers, and then are learning to care about one another’s success. These are the rudiments of cooperation that so many other students take for granted. 

Sewell, a Texas native who also happens to be a Baptist preacher, is clear on his objectives.

“This program is about the mentorship of brothers supporting one another. We have high expectations of them, and we are telling them not to lower their expectations,” he says.

Sound principles. But aren’t they part of the perspective of all students?

Not necessarily for Black males, according to scholars. For too many Black men, setting foot on a college campus is like emerging from the airport as a stranger in a foreign land. As educators have learned in opportunity programs for the disadvantaged, some students, especially young Black men, need help adjusting to several factors in college life, specifically the admissions process, dealing with peers, interacting with teachers and authority figures and organizational skills.

Compounding the problem, says Dr. Michael J. Cuyjet, a specialist in counseling at the University of Louisville, is that research suggests that males are less likely to seek help when they run into trouble.
“We find that women are more likely to collaborate than men,” Cuyjet says. “Women are more likely to get help from others. Men are conditioned to go it alone.”

The hands-on cooperation of this particular group of young men is evident in many ways. One of the students, for example, has a tendency to be late. Other students “adopted” him and call him well before hand to make sure he is out of bed and underway in time to make his appointments. 

What makes these young men unique is that they represent a cross section of the school’s Black population. They were not selected by grades or academic records. They are 25 volunteers out of the 174 African-American men admitted in the class of 2009.  

The group’s activities include a class with Sewell on Black male issues and another with a different instructor on critical thinking. Along with these self-contained studies, the students take courses in American history, English and communications with the rest of the general student population.

The West Georgia Learning Community comprises one of the latest attempts in an anti-affirmative action environment to bridge a problem that has concerned educators not only in Georgia but across the country over the past two decades — how to help Black men get in step with other students when it comes to college attendance and college graduation. 

The problem of lagging Black male achievement is a national one. But Georgia has become a leader in trying to redress it, mainly through the resourceful efforts of the state’s board of regents and its African-American Male Initiative (see Black Issues In Higher Education, July 15, 2004). The initiative began five years ago when Dr. Stephen R. Portch, then chancellor, obtained funds from the Legislature to address lagging achievement in the 34-college system. Dr. Thomas C. Meredith, his successor as chancellor, followed through with additional funds and programs in the various colleges.

It costs approximately $25,000 to run the program, which operates out of the Center for African-American Male Research, Success & Leadership. The center has received funding from outside sponsors such as the UPS Foundation, Georgia-Pacific Foundation and Wal-Mart just to name a few. Sewell says they are attempting to link the program with the Board of Regent’s funding this year.

There are many such programs, large and small, on other campuses in other states. Clemson University has the Call Me Mister program to train Black male teachers. The Pacesetters Scholars Program is run from Okaloosa-Walton Community College in the Florida panhandle. And the University of Nebraska is home to the Melvin W. Jones Scholars Community.

Like any bold effort, the West Georgia program has drawn its critics, who mainly ask why such a narrow population group should be singled out for special favors when there are problems of lagging students throughout the educational system.

The university’s response is that the state has examined the figures and found that Black men specifically have had special problems in the education process. Follow-up studies show that in Georgia, Black male students trail other groups from elementary through high school. And in a state where Black males comprise approximately16 percent of the general population, they are only 7.2 percent of the college population. Black women, on the other hand, make up 15 percent of Georgia’s college population. Moreover, college graduation rates showed dramatic differences: Forty-seven percent for White females, 42 percent for White males, 35 percent for Black women and just 21 percent for Black men.

Each One, Teach One
Sewell, 34, started his work to help Black male students four years ago, shortly after his arrival at West Georgia. His first effort, called Black Men With Initiative, was a program to guide students by using counseling, mentoring and encouragement. It was helpful, according to statistics. Last year, the 25 students in Black Men With Initiative had an average grade point average of 2.63, compared to 2.14 for the rest of the university’s Black men. The student population of West Georgia, located in Carrollton, an hour west of Atlanta, is about 20 percent African-American.

Sewell expects to show better results in the future from the closer attention afforded by the learning community. And built into the program is a system for measuring results and in compiling things learned that can be used more broadly in meeting the needs of all West Georgia students.

One thing Sewell knows the students need is a positive role model.
In Sewell, a Morehouse graduate, they have a young man who came from a college famous for its emphasis on excellence, for brotherly and faithful cooperation and community outreach since the days of former Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin Mays.

“I always dress in a jacket and tie, as do the other Black male teachers here at West Georgia,” says Sewell, “because we are messengers, we are role models.”

The students have Sewell’s phone numbers, and he invites them to feel free to “call me at any time, day or night, and I will be available.”
The learning circle guys are also in touch with the upper classmen, who willingly mentor them and make themselves available in an “each one, teach one” mentality that assures nobody can just slip unnoticed off the radar.

The students know about the special achievements of their brothers. For instance, they know that Justin Bateman was awarded a NASA internship that allowed him to participate in research for a future shuttle mission. Each one knows Ryan Norman, a business major, was selected as one of the top five co-op students with Norfolk Southern, the transportation company. They know that Jonathan Bush, Terrance Lewis and “the twins,” sophomores Braddon and Braxton Calloway were all picked for the selective program INROADS to further their business knowledge. And they know about Joshua Copeland’s special dream to be one of the select personal bodyguards for the president, the special White House detail of the Secret Service.

In addition to their own quest for self support and self improvement, the West Georgia students are adopting a middle school, where they will act as big brothers and mentors of young boys at a critical time in their development.

A Growing Concern
Dr. Michael Lomax, now head of the United Negro College Fund, recalls days of concern back when he was president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

On the one hand he was proud that in a four-year stretch, from 1997 through 2000, enrollment grew 26 percent, from 1,549 to 1,953. But a closer look, he says, showed that Black male enrollment grew from 381 to 436, just under 14 percent, while female enrollment jumped 30 percent.

“I’m deeply troubled by the trend we see among African-American males not opting to attend college at the same pace as Black women,” says a perplexed Lomax.

He’s not alone, and the problem he cites is not new.

More African-American students are showing up on campus, but the women are outnumbering and outperforming the men.

In 1984, figures from the U.S. Department of Education showed that 639,000 Black women attended college and only 437,000 Black men attended, a split of 59.4 percent to 40.6.

In 1997 the split was 62.6 percent to 37.4 percent, with 971,000 women to 580,000 Black men.

Scholars and teachers like Sewell and administrators like West Georgia President Beheruz Sethna (see sidebar) are marshalling energy and ideas to tackle the problem, even as they know the genesis of much of the problem is in society, not campus outreach.

John P. Hamilton, a doctoral student at the University of La Verne in Southern California, did a thesis peering through the other end of the pipeline, examining the characteristics of Black men who succeed and get their degrees.

He found that success was strongly related to strong family support. “In essence, family support was a common denominator for the participants in the study,” he says.

Related as a predictor of success, he says, is participation in campus organizations and activities through membership or leadership.
“Being a part of [an] ethnically specific organization helps African-American men network, make new friends and develop relationships with faculty and staff,” Hamilton says.

Sewell hopes the West Georgia program will instill a sense of leadership in the young men as well. A classroom discussion on Spike Lee’s 1996 movie “Get On the Bus” illustrates how the students see the issue. The movie about a cross-country odyssey to the nation’s capital to attend the Million Man March, explores issues of Black manhood from the perspectives of the men on the bus.

Sewell asked his students who was a mediator on the bus. All knew. The bus driver, George, played by Charles S. Dutton, always seemed to have something beneficial to say to placate guys with sharp differences. “Why was he effective?” Sewell asks.

“Because he always saw both sides,” a student says. “He was calm. He was knowledgeable. He touched on things they all had in common, like pride in Black history.”

“Are there conflicts among you guys?” Sewell asks. “Come on, I know there are,” Sewell says.

School has been in session for less than a month, but the guys say they already have clashed with roommates over issues like neatness and noise.

“Is there any one of you who is good as a mediator?”

“Yes, Marvin,” says one young man, and the other students agree.  
One thing the learning community is about, Sewell says, is raising up more Georges, more Marvins.

The discussion about “Get On the Bus” was doubly relevant. Not only is Sewell’s mission to instill leadership values, but also, as it happened, the group was preparing to take their own bus ride to Washington Oct. 14 for the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.

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