During a year hit by the COVID pandemic and protests for racial justice, community college programs for men of color are more needed than ever. But with college campuses closed, it’s become more difficult to make personal connections, according to education advocates.
Elgin Community College (ECC) in Illinois started a new program in fall 2019 called TRIUMPH (Transforming and Impacting Undergraduate Men Pursuing Higher Education) to provide mentoring and retention support for men of color.
To be inducted as TRIUMPH Scholars, students must attend a certain number of workshops, complete 10 hours of service-learning, and meet with academic, career and financial aid advisors to develop a plan for completing college.
The workshops focus on building general skills, such as conflict resolution, goal-setting, emotional management, financial literacy, self-knowledge and time management, says Erik Enders, coordinator for TRIUMPH and targeted populations.
After students are inducted, the focus shifts to the next phase – life after ECC – which includes “finding your purpose, how to function properly in relationships and the importance of self-advocacy,” Enders says.
When the pandemic hit, ECC’S program faced a major obstacle.
“Whenever you deal with young people in this type of program, you have to be intrusive to gain consistent participation,” Enders says. “That was challenging enough in person. The pandemic has made our work definitely much more challenging.”
“We had several TRIUMPH Scholars who didn’t come back to school this fall. Some aren’t returning phone calls. Their focus has shifted,” he continues. Some participating students left school when the campus closed because “they don’t function well in a virtual environment.”
The original plan called for inductees to meet in a separate group from students in the new TRIUMPH cohort. But because only four of the 13 inductees returned this fall, they now all meet virtually.
While the program focuses on personal development, Enders is planning workshops on broader issues.
During the summer, a TRIUMPH Scholar organized a peaceful march from the college to the Elgin Police Department following the murder of George Floyd to protest systemic racism and police brutality. He expected a few dozen participants, but hundreds of people showed up, Ender says.
“It really was an inspiring event. There was a lot of support from the community,” he says.
So far, “we’ve been very intentional about not overexposing the scholars to what’s in the media,” Enders says. “It is important to talk about current events; we’re inundated with this all the time, but our meetings are supposed to be places where they can relax. When we do get into those issues, we’ll have a great discussion.”
The Male Empowerment Network (MEN) at the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona focuses on academic rigor, brotherhood and leadership, says Felicia Ganther, associate vice chancellor for student affairs. Many of those activities organized by MEN – such as field trips to museums and operas – have been suspended or converted to virtual settings during the pandemic. MEN members also haven’t been able to take part in social etiquette skills-building events or induction and milestone ceremonies.
“Supporting these young men face-to-face can be challenging. The pandemic added another layer of distance,” says Roy Ostos, director of student affairs at the Maricopa Community Colleges (MCC).
This is also the first year that members of MEN won’t participate in the Men of Color Student Institute hosted by the National Council on Black American Affairs, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges. The event offered a great opportunity for students to interact with their peers from across the country, Ostos says.
“We want to expose our young men to the outside world. For many of them, this was the first time they’ve been out of state or flown on a plane or wore a suit,” he says.
Distance learning woes
Many MEN members are first-generation students who often don’t have someone in their family to help them, so they don’t know about financial aid or tutoring resources, Ostos says. MEN tries to fill that gap.
“Our chapter advisors have become the go-to persons for our young men,” Ganther says. They deal with everything from helping a student get a laptop, to dealing with basic needs, such as food and housing insecurity, to connecting them with a tutor or counselor, she says.
Many MEN students are apprehensive about distance learning, she adds. They are having trouble keeping up and miss engaging with their classmates.
During the pandemic, “some of the young men have had to put their academic journey on hold,” Ganther says. “We’re still keeping them engaged and helping them ramp back into higher education.”
Returning to inspire others
MEN alumni currently working in higher education agreed to host Zoom calls on weekends so “current students in the program have a space and a place to speak their mind about what’s happening in the news, the protests and COVID,” she says.
“Participation has been tremendous. Young men are sharing their feelings and their worries,” she notes.
Many former MEN members come back after they graduate to share their stories, Ostos adds. In one example, Martin Garcia was working at a car wash after graduating from high school. His mother wanted a better life for him, so she brought him to MCC, where he enrolled in the work-study program and became the first president of MEN. He transferred to Arizona State University, eventually earned two master’s degrees and is now a TRIO grant program director.
“Due to his work ethic and care for his fellow brothers, he was invited to be a featured speaker at a MEN conference,” Ganther says. The only problem was he didn’t have a suit that fit well, so she helped him with the alterations.
In addition to hosting men of color programs, two California college presidents – Keith Curry of Compton College and Pamela Luster of San Diego Mesa College (SDMC) – are working to close equity gaps through the Equity Avengers movement they launched in summer 2019.
The two presidents created a coalition of community college presidents and other leaders to highlight the national conversation around equity. They began hosting weekly #EquityAvenger chats on Twitter in June, featuring a different college president in each session.
Those sessions also “shined a light on things that can be done on our own campuses,” Luster says. “There are students at Mesa who don’t have enough food, don’t have a roof over their heads and have children at home. I’m much more in the weeds, paying more attention to what’s going on.”
That prompted Luster to seek changes to SDMC’s scholarship process. She persuaded the college’s foundation to distribute scholarships immediately, rather than waiting until the semester starts.
“It’s all about seeing the need and moving on it,” Luster says.
Curry realized the importance of talking about racism. He had a conversation with employees sparked by the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police.
“I would never have had that kind of open conversation on campus a year ago,” he says.
A sense of urgency
Both presidents feel a sense of urgency to act now, rather than delaying action on these issues. But now that campuses are mostly closed, this work is much harder “without a community you see every day on campus,” Luster acknowledges.
And that’s made it more difficult for men of color programs. An annual conference, hosted this year by Compton College is virtual, for example. The keynote speaker, Tommie Smith, is one of the U.S. athletes who raised a fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
At SDMC, the Umoja-Mesa Academy Program (UMAP) transformed its services – such as career, academic and personal counseling; cultural experiences; and mentoring – to a virtual format.
UMAP members are curating a series called “Propelled by Protest,” comprising student-led conversations on Zoom on how they’re dealing with the pandemic and racism, Luster says.
While that series was propelled by the killing of George Floyd, the goal is to encourage students to do more than participate in a passive protest. It’s also a safe zone where students struggling with anxiety and depression can ask questions and seek help.
The Men of Color Achieving Success (MOCAS) program at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee was founded two years ago to assist student-athletes.
“We don’t have a sizable athletic program, but our basketball team is mostly made up of students of color, and they seemed to be lacking academically,” says Melva Black, assistant dean of humanities.
The initial group consisted of 10 to 12 African-American males, including a mix of athletes and non-athletes, although students from other races were invited. Black organized six two-hour sessions for them featuring motivational speakers and local leaders in industry, finance, athletics, politics, healthcare and the faith community.
Since the program started, all participants have stayed enrolled or completed college, which might not have happened without the additional support, Black says.
MOCAS members must collectively create a project, known as an “artifact,” based on their own ideas and research. The artifact can be a written report or video presented to a group of professionals in a particular industry.
MOCAS is built around six competencies: scholarship (focused on retention and completion); self-development and self-management; cultural awareness; decision making; social responsibility; and managing relationships in a diverse world.
The cultural awareness piece addresses “what it means to be a young Black man today in America and in higher education,” Black says. “We wouldn’t be credible without this conversation about their own history, what they’re experiencing now and how they envision their future.”
Before the pandemic, MOCAS students came to campus on Fridays when there are no classes. Now that the program is all online, Black has actually seen a surge in potential members. While the program’s capacity is limited to 20, “it’s critical not to turn students away,” she says.
That’s especially important now when the Tennessee community college system is seeing a 24% drop in enrollment among students of color this fall compared to last fall. First-time, full-time enrollment among Black males is down 35%. Overall enrollment at Tennessee community colleges is down 11%.
Volunteer State had a much lower drop in enrollment than the state average, but Black says “it’s abysmal” that so many Black male students are foregoing college. She blames the pandemic’s outsized impact on communities of color, where more people have to choose between feeding their family, paying for healthcare or going to college. And that’s having an impact even though the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect offer free college tuition.
“We can see the colliding of economics, the pandemic, the cultural conditions in the nation” contributing to the decision of so many young people deciding to put off college and get a job instead, Black says.
“That’s why MOCAS is more necessary today than ever,” she says. “It creates a sense of belonging when there is so much division across the nation.”