Who knew how important having biological brothers could be to my career and life’s work? I always wanted to be in education, and as many of us in the field do, I stumbled upon student affairs during my undergrad years. All the while, I was watching my older and younger brothers’ life paths evolve very different than mine and my three older sisters. All my sisters and I have at least our bachelor’s degree and pursued professions in law enforcement, K-12 education, medicine, and higher education. My brothers chose to purse noble military careers instead of accepting college scholarships…both of them…13 years apart in age.
We all grew up in a household with both our parents, who emigrated from Haiti in the 1960’s, letting us know “education is key.” We all went through the same school district with the same college prep programs available. But for my brothers, the message didn’t compute the same when it came to decision making time after high school. I believe the success narrative and focus my parents provided regarding higher education in America was undermined somewhere in the system early in my brothers’ education.
I noticed a pattern beyond my brothers, as I took the lead on managing an African American first-year peer-mentoring program as a graduate student. Black undergraduate males were not making it through the first year. Year after year as I continued in my career, I noted the reduced number returning for the start of the second year. The exodus pattern persisted. It was pervasive as I advanced in my career at different institutions.
This pattern eventually led to my dissertation research. Bright, young, powerful Black men, like my brothers, were not succeeding in college and leaving at disturbing rates. Even when Black male students made the decision to enter college versus going to the military or into the workforce, I noted too many exited without earning the degree.
What was happening to our Black men in college?
One institution I worked at noticed the pattern as well and decided to become their brothers’ keeper. They invested. They identified money and resources for the effort and I was happy to be a part of the institution-wide effort to increase the retention, engagement, and success of our Black male students. What started as a piece-meal effort of a few leaders grew into a cohesive Black male retention initiative.
Since then, over 10 years ago, many other institutions are following suit. I’m happy to say I contribute as my brothers’ keeper through my research and found some important factors and practices for future and current SA Pros to consider when revising the success story for Black male students through launching retention initiatives. Here are five thoughts to consider at the start of your planning efforts:
1. Institutional context is critical in developing a gender AND race based retention program
- Anti-affirmative action legislation is alive and a real issue for institutions pursuing race-based anything. Understand your leaders’ philosophy surrounding these issues. Understand your state politics, your local community politics, and your institutional politics. Answer “what is your institution’s understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion?” Creating a program based on the data is the safest route to take and a best practice for longevity.
2. Teach Leadership
- The retention initiative you create may be the first and potentially the only opportunity the Black male students on your campus engage in leadership development. Include a comprehensive leadership curriculum to make sure you create a launching pad for them to explore other leadership avenues on your campus. As an incubator, you can encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone and lead across campus when they are ready.
3. Be Inclusive
- Black men are diverse, not homogenous. In my research, leaders of programs struggled with including gay Black male students, students practicing a minority faith traditions, and student-athletes. Focus on creating a safe space on campus for all Black males. Find the common ground to engage your Black male students on campus, and watch how their diversity in identity and experience will make better group dynamics.
- Data from the start. Data throughout. Figure out what measures are important to leaders and funding sources from the start. If you don’t know, ASK. Make sure you collect those data regularly and report out to the decision makers. Update the retention program based on students’ needs. Consistent assessment of what they are learning and what is identified as helpful in their success is necessary for program success. Share it, share it, share it!
5. Finally, Inventory YOU
- If you take on leadership, take an inventory of how your professional career path, personal experiences and identity will influence how you will design the program structure. How you show up and lead will make a difference in how students engage. You are the role model for the students. Bring others along who have walked different paths compared to yours to create multiple role models for the Black male students to connect.
My brothers inspire my work far before I knew my meaningful work would be in student affairs. I give them that credit. As we continue to evolve as a profession full of educators and world changers, it is our role to keep our brothers and to make sure their experience on campus allows them to reach their full potential. I am dedicated to creating healthy, diverse, and inclusive college campuses and invite you to join me in keeping our brothers successfully all the way through college.