My hometown is among the communities with the lowest-performing schools. Milwaukee — where 75 percent of Black male eighth-graders read below grade level — graduates only 40 percent of its African-American students. Of my high school class of 900, only 197 students graduated in four years. I was one of the few males of color who went on to college. I graduated near the top of my high school class and found myself at a small state school in the University of Wisconsin system.
I have had the opportunity to work with young African-American and Hispanic male college students for more than 10 years at Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now at DePaul University. An overwhelming majority of these men came from some of the most underperforming public school systems in the country, such as those in Milwaukee and Chicago. Those men of color who reach college are often seen as anomalies. They have risen above the broken system, managing to slip up the cracks to find themselves on college campuses. If I take a moment to explore the stories of those young men who matriculate into higher education, I find more than failure. I find hope. Countless African-American and Hispanic men who come from low-performing neighborhoods succeed in college and have gone on to become activists or organizers in urban environments. Some have become educators in the neighborhoods in which they grew up, and others have become business professionals or leaders of nonprofit organizations who give back by creating scholarships and sharing their experience.
Many have found their way thanks to programs that cater to them and their needs. I recently met a young Black man from one of Chicago’s lowest-performing neighborhoods, North Lawndale.
Statistically speaking, he should not have graduated from high school, let alone college. The statistics for his particular neighborhood suggest that he should have been in jail by now. He did graduate from high school and college and is now back in that same neighborhood as a DePaul alum, working with other young Black males through the Young Men’s Educational Network (YMEN). It’s the same organization that helped him beat the odds.
Organizations like YMEN provide an opportunity for young males to explore what it means to be men in a way that challenges them to be better. Similarly, student groups like the Latino Men’s Group at the University of Wisconsin, which I helped found, provide male-only spaces in which support and guidance can be nurtured. In addition, the Men of Color Initiative at DePaul University provides a four-year program to engage, transform and empower these men. These spaces, designed to help explore and reframe masculinity, are essential in creating the type of men who can be successful. We know these programs make a difference. A recent evaluation of DePaul’s Men of Color Initiative, which serves more than 200 students most of whom are low-income Chicagoans and the first in their family to attend college, showed promising results. A prime indicator that students will persist to graduation, according to a large institutional research project at DePaul, is that they earn at least a 2.5 GPA and at least 48 credit hours by the end of freshman year. Our data analysis revealed that students who participate in our program achieved those benchmarks at a higher rate than men of color on campus who do not participate in the Men of Color Initiative.
In assessing the impact of the program, one student, a second-year African-American, states that the program “changed the way I looked at college in a good way and made me be more active in school, something I never did.” Another student, a sophomore Latino, stated that it was the “most important experience of my first year of college” and that “without it, I would not have had as great an experience” in that first year.
These men, and the reasons they are successful, are where we need to focus our attention. Their experiences — and the programs that assisted them — offer best practices for supporting other male students of color, not only in high school but also at the collegiate level. Let us as concerned citizens find the balance between the disturbing numbers released by the Schott Foundation and the hope created by those men of color who do graduate.
Eric Mata is assistant director in the Office of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University, in charge of the Men of Color Initiative.
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