Programs for men of color aim for persistence, completion

The Men of Color Leadership Program at Portland Community College in Oregon, which started in 2007 as a pilot program, serves 15 to 20 students annually. (Photo: PCC)

Community college students who are men of color face a wider array of hurdles than many of their peers, ranging from profiling on the part of police, to heightened financial challenges in persisting and completing their degrees. At least some colleges have found that the demographic group’s overall success lags behind their student populations on the whole.

In response, an increasing number of two-year institutions are creating special programs for Black and Brown males to create a cohort that provides encouragement and support for one another while receiving added attention from the administration and faculty. The greater impact of Covid on Black and Brown communities and the intensified attention to racial profiling in the wake of the George Floyd killing has underscored the need for such programs, administrators say.

Making connections in Portland

The Men of Color Leadership Program at Portland Community College in Oregon dates back to the Great Recession of the late 2000s. It began as a pilot program in 2007 and ramped up in 2010, centered around a series of courses for which the 15 to 20 students who typically participate can earn seven to nine credits per year.

The coursework covers subjects like college “survival,” career and life planning, men’s health and exploring identity, says Clifford Meeks, assistant coordinator.

“They’re able to talk about different aspects of their identity and how they are impacted as they matriculated throughout higher education,” he says. “Other aspects include community-building — that’s one of the very tenets of their program. The cohort doesn’t flourish unless community is established early on.”

Although it doesn’t have a GPA requirement, the Men of Color Leadership Program promotes academic excellence while connecting participants to community- and campus-based resources, from counseling, to scholarships, to technology opportunities, Meeks says.

“We tell them, ‘This is about building bonds and trust,’ not just with us but amongst themselves,” he says. “We encourage them to connect with each other outside of class, as well as take classes with each other, especially if they are in the same field of study.”

Recruiting students

The program always has looked at the participants and their education from a social justice lens and encouraged community service that benefits the students in addition to those they serve, Meeks says.

“As a person of color, what are your responsibilities and contributions to society?” says Mak Porotesano, program coordinator. “We not only show them how to navigate their oppressed identities, but how do they navigate their oppressive identity, which is male privilege. … We tackle toxic masculinity, hyper-masculinity and homophobia.”

The program encourages students to express emotions to one another, Porotesano says.

“Men are uncomfortable saying ‘I love you’ to other guys,” he says. “By the end of the year, that’s not a problem. They’re hugging. They have friends on the other [side of the] spectrum, trans folks who are in the class. They’re saying, ‘I can be better for you.’”

Students in PCC’s Men of Color Leadership Program prior to Covid.

Meeks and Porotesano recruit students in traditional and non-traditional ways, ranging from posting flyers around campus, to reaching out to students frequently hanging out at the campus multicultural center where their offices are housed. They have built relationships with departmental advisers who recommend the program to certain students. 

“There’s a lot of warm handoffs, where advisers will literally walk them to our offices,” Meeks says. “They can see that this is a real space, with real people.”

Meeks also spends time in the cafeteria talking to students and connects through their friends and even alumni of the program. Prior to Covid, “We would have former students dragging students in, saying, ‘You need to take advantage of this,’” he says. “I did a lot of cold-calling. When a student realized it was from PCC, the dynamic changed. At first, they were treating it like a robocall. They saw a message was left, and I would usually get a callback.”

Building persistence in Greenville

In South Carolina, Greenville Technical College launched its African American Male Scholars Initiative a few years ago after the school found that retention had dropped to its lowest level ever — and that African-American males were at the bottom of the list of who re-enrolled each semester, and who succeeded in coursework in subjects like math and English.

“We were like, ‘Good grief, OK,’” says Alecia Watt, director of educational opportunity programs at the school, who provides leadership for the initiative. “That was a very clear trend that we were able to identify. We knew that whatever plan we put together was going to have to include something special for African-American males.”

Launched in 2019-20, the program is focused most closely on “intensive case management,” Watt says, with the 100 or so participants determined through an application process that involves a rigorous needs assessment.

“We’re trying to find out, are they having issues with transportation, or child care, or if they have a history of substance abuse, if they’re working full-time or part-time — all the things that perhaps serve as a barrier to them being successful,” she says. “We’re asking questions about time management, if they’re good at managing money, trying to gauge their self-esteem, and whether they have family resources they can draw on, or resources at the college.”

Based on applicants’ answers, Watt and her team connect them to different campus or community resources. They also have a dedicated adviser in addition to their regular campus adviser, who helps them plan a course-by-course route to completion, and a part-time counselor paid through the United Way to help students work through stress- and anxiety- related to issues outside of the classroom. Watt hopes to have a dedicated person in each student services area who is the go-to for her students.

There are weekly lunch-and-learns held on topics mostly related to achievement and success, with Black male speakers whenever possible.

“The goal is to expose [students] to other successful African-American males, so they can see themselves in those particular positions,” Watt says.

During the program’s second year, 2020-21, Greenville added a mentoring component piloted with 10 of the 100 participants, in which students are paired with someone from the community-based career interests, and they plan to offer that to 20 students in the upcoming school year.

Getting launched at Durham Tech

One of the more recent colleges to roll out a program geared toward men of color is North Carolina’s Durham Technical Community College, which has had an Office of Institutional Equity and Inclusion but has just launched its Men of Color Scholars Institute, says Keyma Clark, director of Students of Color Success.

“My job is to provide opportunities for students to be successful, to get the best holistic experience,” he says. “The Men of Color Scholars program is a way to funnel down to a group that is struggling a lot — they have struggles getting transportation, struggles getting financial support.”

In addition to academic support, the institute will provide practical life and career tips like how to create a resume, prepare for a job interview or self-advocate in the classroom, Clark says.

He plans to biweekly check ins with the young men to talk about their evolving needs, whether that is tutoring or transportation.

Clark expects to have mentors work with students in each “meta-major,” such as health sciences or the performing arts, to help each participant succeed in his field of study.

“You want to do engineering. That may not work for your schedule now,” he says. “[The mentor is] able to help you transition to a certificate, and get an opportunity started—take classes now, and in a year or so, come back and finish your degree.”

Changes due to Covid, racial reckoning

The events of the past year have underscored the need for men-of-color programs while adding to the challenges of recruiting students. At Portland, the saving grace has been the 13-year track record of the Men of Color Leadership Program and the active search among department leaders to encourage sometimes-hesitant students to get involved.

The pandemic has prompted the program to scale back somewhat, from nine credits available to seven, and from the usual 15 to 20 students to more like 10 or 12, although Meeks is hoping to ramp that back up. In terms of the racial reckoning, Meeks says, “This may sound cavalier, but that wasn’t anything new. We addressed that prior to Covid. It predates the pandemic.”

Students often haven’t had the greatest experience in the K-12 environment, and they bring that with them into community college, Meeks says.

“Racism, homophobia, class issues, we touch on that. We overdo it, if you can possibly do that, which I don’t think you can. Students appreciate that. We heard a comment, ‘What other class could you have a discussion where we can relate to issues for us, as men of color?’”

Porotesano agrees that the racial reckoning and the onset of Covid have highlighted the need to pay attention to and address the experiences of men of color, although it’s nothing new for those who have led them all along.

“We’ve known this, which is why we have the program,” he says. “One thing that hasn’t changed [in remote learning], is we’re still banking on relationship building in those classes. The cameras are on; the chat room is live. They’re excited to be in that space. They bring it every day in that class. It’s good for us. Sometimes a class is full of blank screens, and it’s like, ‘Bueller, Bueller,’ are people there? That’s not the case with Men of Color classes.”

Related article: 2020 is taking a toll on men of color

The onset of Covid threw a short-term wrench in Greenville’s plans to take the African American Male Scholars Initiative to the next level. Still, students and faculty adjusted, Watt says. They found laptops for as many students as possible, although faculty and staff needed to have priority.

“We still had students who did not have access. We helped who we could,” she says.

Students in the program faced myriad stresses — many lost jobs, five were diagnosed with Covid and one even had a parent die of it, Watt says.

“Thank God we had a counselor who helped him get through that,” she says. “Students who lost jobs needed help filling out unemployment benefits. There’s a lot of us helping them with things outside of school. Those things affect whether or not they stay in school. It’s hardly ever related to their academic ability. …. Covid did not help with any of that.”

Discussions about interacting with police

The George Floyd incident added to the stress and anxiety that students already felt, and the program put together a Zoom session facilitated by a counselor to let them publicly air their emotions.

“The things we found out during that session were heartbreaking,” Watt says. “One student said, ‘I don’t watch TV anymore because every time they’re playing that same video of George Floyd. Stop showing it. We get it.’ Another student chimed in and said, ‘It’s all over social media, too.’ They were being bombarded by it.”

The group had rich discussions around topics such as why police feel threatened by young Black men and how to navigate such encounters. The counselor also provided tips on self-care.

“It was so good to be able to provide that space, ask questions and share what they were feeling,” Watt says. “It’s OK to say, ‘I’m not OK,’ or, ‘I’m feeling sad, or anxious, or whatever it is you’re feeling.’ She said, ‘You’ll be surprised by how relieved you’ll feel to verbalize it.”

The counselor’s brother, a veteran federal law enforcement officer, led a session on how to comport oneself if pulled over by police.

“It was valuable to hear from him,” Watt says. “He was able to explain and answer their questions from a law enforcement perspective. One thing he said is that the officer’s primary thought in any type of engagement is that I want to make it home to my family safely tonight. He talked about threat levels: ‘If you do this, the threat level has increased.’ … He gave solid strategies on how to negotiate with police.”

Covid stalled the work at Durham Tech, Clark says, although the pandemic and the racial reckoning also added to the school’s motivation to get it up and running. Coming back to campus in the fall, Clark suspects students will need a space to have conversations about mental health-related issues connected with racial injustices, including police killings of Black men.

“We are not professionals, but we can get them in touch with supports,” he says. “The social injustices weren’t the reason we started, but they definitely sped the process up. Covid slowed it down a little bit. We’re excited about getting students back in the fall, on campus. … Face-to-face conversations give us a better opportunity to recruit.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.