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Positioning Ourselves to Support College Success for Males of Color

Along with my colleagues Jelisa S. Clark at Fayetteville State University and Matthew Smith at California State University Dominguez Hills, our recently published book, Empowering Men of Color on Campus: Building Student Community in Higher Education, takes an in-depth look at the collegiate experiences of males of color at a Hispanic serving institution in the southwest region of the U.S.

Our main objective in writing this book, published by Rutgers University Press, was to investigate how a select group of students, all of whom were engaged in a male success program on campus, narrated their educational experience,s including their pathways to and experiences during college. We wanted to know how these students thought about themselves, built relationships with their male peers, made meaning of their engagement experiences and aspired to success. We argue that despite the overly projected deficit narrative about males of color, there is much to learn from their meanings, associations, engagements and efforts, as well as their connections to and uses of community.

In one of our interviews, Juan, a third-year Latino majoring in history, reflected on his pathway to college and confessed, “Well, in high school, I didn’t really care. I just wanted to get to college—that was the goal; that was it. Once I got to college, I figured I’d figure out what to do.” Another student, Eddie, in reflecting on his aspirations and motivations for success, noted, “My motivation to succeed academically is much higher now than it was before. It’s much, much higher because I want to succeed and I want to do much better. I created a vision for me to reach my goals, and one of those is [academic success].” He specifically referenced the importance of his family in informing and strengthening his aspirations, “My grandparents didn’t have that opportunity, and for my younger brother, I want to show him an example of what he can be. And plus, I wanted to, you know, step outside of that statistic. It seems like in many African-American communities, we lead in a lot of areas, and I wanted to lead in this one.”

The statements offered by Juan and Eddie and others in our study resonate well with some of the prevailing sentiments that dominate education discourse, especially within higher education. In Juan’s particular statement, he identifies a disconnect in his secondary school experiences and his educational aspirations. Similarly, what is revealing about Eddie’s reflection on the factors that contributed to his decision to attend college to pursue his bachelor’s degree is the inherent tension of both the push and pull factors that he battled prior to his college enrollment. On the one hand, like many of his peers and other college students, he acknowledged an increased motivation to succeed academically and develop “a vision” to achieve his goals. On the other hand, while his family helped motivate his aspirations, he expressed having to contend with the added burdens that come with being a Black male – being a negative statistic.

The statistics about males of color cut two ways. First, they can serve to “justify” the already-lowered expectations of males of color throughout the educational pipeline. Because they do not complete college at higher rates, some may argue, it might be expected that they will not be successful in college. In fact, some of our youth receive these messages well before they reach college. Second, the statistics signify to these students a narrowed conundrum: succumb to the perceptions or attempt to prove them wrong. Inherently, the cost of this dyadic view is that it strangles away these students’ sense of agency and belonging on many college campuses.

At some institutions, students of color in general and males of color more particularly are responding to and trying to navigate hostile and apathetic campus cultures. Here, the students often are trying to “survive” just to “make it through” college. In effect, with little and not enough support, racial tensions between themselves and staff and faculty, social and academic dissonance, racism and discrimination, and lowered views of them, standards of and support for excellence for males of color are compromised quite easily. And the resulting discussion indicts the students themselves for not performing better.

In Empowering Men of Color on Campus, we take a much different approach. We acknowledge the challenges that males of color face throughout the educational pipeline and note some of the ways that they may undermine their own efforts. More centrally, we take a culturally sensitive research approach as we set out to learn from males of color as opposed to talking about them. Given our own social identities and commitments to our communities, we are aware of both the statistics and the narratives that cloud their efforts. Learning from these students necessarily means that we are offered a context to better understand who they are. In learning who they are, we also are able to better appreciate their efforts and possibilities—and what they’re capable of achieving.

At the heart of what we learn is that the students are empowered through and by what we call their educational agency. We use educational agency to refer to students’ capacity and inclination to take purposeful educational actions, which we argue is harbored in community cultural wealth. Through our study, we show the ways in which the cultural wealth of the community enhanced students’ educational agency, which bolstered their academic aspirations, academic and social engagement and personal development. Examining students’ experiences through an asset-based approach is critical in honoring the skills, talents and aspirations.

Additionally, we learn that community plays a vital role in positioning males of color for success. We look at and take stock of community from a broad perspective, as much of their narratives centered on the multiple communities (family, home, college) that they are connected to, learn from and depend on. These communities are full of assets that help to sustain these students in a variety of ways.

First, community refers to the community cultural wealth that males of color bring with them to college. Second, building student community on campus reflects the students’ engagement in a male success program; their involvement helps strengthen the bonds that they develop with their male peers on campus, serves as a communal space, and encourages collective efforts and consciousness. And, third, the students are engaged in a shared community through their engagement and leadership on campus and in the local community.

An important element of our study’s findings is the need to challenge and change the narratives about and views of males of color. In particular, as the students’ narratives here and elsewhere articulate, the resources and mechanisms we put in place are clear forms of communication to students regarding what we think about them. Males of color are part of the student demographic that colleges and universities dare to applaud as they engage in self-congratulatory behaviors intended to “celebrate diversity.” But the key to be ever mindful of is that diversity and inclusion are not synonymous. And, the reality is, talk is not enough. We must continuously affirm and activate commitments to our students that are clear, robust and specific. We need greater institutional efforts and resources that position males of color for success in college and, at the same time, we need greater collective efforts to support them.

While the findings of our study provide important insights about students and their experiences, they also help inform what we can learn about the work we do. Based on findings from our study and ongoing work and discussions with students and institutional personnel across a variety of campuses, I offer five critical points for educators and practitioners to incorporate in their work with males of color. As opposed to placing all of the responsibility on students, these points are intended to speak to some of the ways that we can work more effectively with our students.

  1. Get to know your students. Students continue to tell us over and over that relationships matter in their educational experiences and efforts. Thus, I find it imperative that we get to know our students. We need to know who our students are and what their interests are in order to build relationships with them. Also, greater knowledge about them can inform the information, opportunities and resources we commit to sharing with them. Getting to know students also opens the door to learning about what they’re capable of achieving. It is because we know them that our beliefs in them can be unwavering. In reflecting on meaningful relationships they’ve had in their educational journeys, a number of students have stated, “They believed in me more than I believed in myself.” This is translated as unwavering belief and support when students face challenges and helping them persevere and navigate the process toward their goals.
  2. Show up and be present. We have to show up and be present for our students. Our students will garner a number of experiences throughout their college careers, which offer us multiple opportunities to be present in their lives. Students are not simply their academic selves, but instead are composed of complex identities—and they’re engaged in a number of activities beyond academics. How you show up in the areas of their lives speaks to how and the extent to which you care. Showing up also provides students opportunities to know who you are. For the students that I have worked with throughout my professional career, the mantra that we use is: “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” Our care and support should be clear and present. Our students need us to show up and be present in how we engage and talk with them, how we listen to them and how we respond to what they share.
  3. Care authentically. Our students are fatigued by people saying they care—about them, their activities, their success, etc., without actions that provide evidence for these statements. However, as students have attested, it is not enough to say you care; care must be enacted in every aspect of our engagement with them. It is impossible to care authentically if you do not know who your students are. Knowledge of their major is low-hanging fruit—and does not tell us a lot about who they are. We need to care through their challenges and triumphs; we need to care through their celebrations, acknowledgments and accomplishments. But, even more importantly, we must care about their day-to-day lives. Our relationships keep us informed about various aspects of students’ lives and we must be in tune and attuned to where they are and how they are progressing on their journeys.
    4. Be person-centered. Being person-centered is connected to the previous points stated above. Caring about students as people means that we acknowledge their lives beyond their student identity. Without doubt, our students have needs that go beyond our job titles or job descriptions; still, how we engage with and care about students as people speaks volumes about who we claim to be and what we claim to be about. Additionally, being person-centered calls us to focus on what students are capable of and what we can do to support their goals, as opposed to what we believe they cannot do or limiting them to their past (or worst) performances. To the extent possible, students should be involved in the efforts that you engage in on their behalf. In doing for students, we often disempower them. Instead, a person-centered approach helps to empower students through the process.
    5. Follow up and follow through. Our students need us to follow up with and follow through for them. Following up and following through reaffirms our caring concern for students and often can help alleviate some of the stressors, tensions and challenges that they may be experiencing in their lives. Too many students report feeling isolated or alone during their college journeys, which makes their communities critical to their well-being and persistence. Additionally, following up and following through also keeps our support and authentic care present and in the moment for students. Being there with students through an experience can be the support needed for them to accomplish their goals, reflect on their experiences and reach even higher in their future endeavors. Following up also keeps us in close relational proximity to our students.

The points raised here are intended to shed light on ways that we can position ourselves to help support males of color in their educational journeys. Also, the points raised here are based on lessons learned from males of color as they name, identify and discuss how support matters in their college experiences. Importantly, these points should be received in concert with other factors that have been shown to contribute to student success, such as healthy and inclusive campus climates, social and academic engagement, mentoring and leadership opportunities, personal and professional development and access to resources. What is most important about these points is that they position us to better see and know who our students are and support them throughout their journeys.

Students come to our campuses full of potential and possibilities and some come with greater needs than others. They also come with various forms of capital at their disposal. While we need students to engage in specific performances to progress through college requirements successfully, a key component is better positioning ourselves to support males of volor for success. College should not operate on a sink or swim mantra, and our support for students should not depend on our job titles or how students “prove” to us how much or if they care. Greater attention to helping students become who they are, even as they continue formulating their identities and sense of self, can go a long way in helping them achieve their goals and increasing their possibilities for success.

If we are serious about improving the educational outcomes of males of color throughout the educational pipeline, then we need to change, address and refine how we see and think about them, how we imagine, believe in and support their possibilities and, most fundamentally, how we work with them. As my esteemed colleague Kenneth Hutchinson ardently believed in and acted on, we must work from a standpoint that centers on seeing our success and students’ success as equally yoked.

Dr. Derrick R. Brooms is author of several books and an associate professor in sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Cincinnati. You can follow him on Twitter @drbrooms7

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