Hundreds of education leaders and students gathered for Montclair State University’s inaugural Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance (MEGA) Symposium recently to address ways of improving educational outcomes for young Black and Latinx males. Educators, counselors and other higher education professionals from the Northeast, including Boston, Washington, D.C. and parts of Pennsylvania, attended the daylong event at University Hall.
While professionals heard from a morning panel of experts about educational success of Black and Latino males including breakout sessions in developing resilience in Black men and stories of degree completion for Latinos, 100 or so high school students from Passaic, Essex and Hudson counties participated in the Symposium’s “scholars track” at the Feliciano School of Business.
Noting they are aware of the issue of “cis” and “identified” Black and Latinx males lagging behind their white and female classmates, the educators focused on solutions to recruiting, enrolling and supporting through graduation from institutions of higher education. Speakers emphasized the need for genuine caring and investment in young men of color and their achievements because, as keynote speaker Terrell Strayhorn, an Illinois State University professor of Higher Education and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, succinctly put it: “Access without success is useless.”
Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell says the conference was “as much about self-examination as it is about understanding differences in behavior or outcomes for the students.”
He says the more essential question is, “What are we doing as a university and as a whole educational system that’s creating those different outcomes? Why do we always say that it’s about the learner, and we don’t look in the mirror and say, ‘How could we be doing things differently to address those disparities?’ ”
Montclair alumna Nicole Pulliam ’05 MA, ’14 PhD, a professor and director of the Social Justice Academy at Monmouth University who presented the session “Empowering Young Black Males Leadership Mentoring Program: A Catalyst for Retention, Access & Student Success,” made a similar observation.
Pulliam says it’s important to keep in mind that “predominantly white institutions, historically, were not created for Black and brown people. That’s just a fact. So, that level of systemic oppression still exists even though some policies have changed. It’s really important for universities to do some intentional work around supporting Black and Latinx males in order to help them thrive, not just merely survive.”
Moderated by Justice Studies Associate Professor Jason Williams, the morning panel included educators in K-12, higher education and licensed psychologist Emmanuel Mercedes, founder and head psychologist of Your Wellness Space™, who addressed the need to create safe spaces for students and take their mental health and emotional well-being into account.
“As a society, we lack a comprehensive social structure to be able to take into account the mental health needs of our communities, more specifically, the mental health of men and men of color,” Mercedes said. “The challenge is we are trying to put interventions in place, and we’re not taking into account how an individual’s emotional experiences, their thought process, their history of trauma and how that has affected their decision-making process.”
“If they do not feel safe in a place, they will act out. It doesn’t matter if a place is actually safe, if they don’t feel safe. We know if someone doesn’t feel safe, they are not optimized to be learning,” Mercedes continued. “If you want to help students, you have to take into account their mental health.”
He urged attendees to: “Start out with the assumption that everything we do is connected to our mental health.”
Jonathan Harris, residential academic success coach at Lincoln University near Oxford, Pennsylvania, led a session on his Dine & Discuss events, which give students opportunities to interact and network with faculty, staff, alumni and community members over dinner. As an attendee of other male-specific conferences, he had high praise for Montclair’s event: “I’ve been to some conferences that are three days long and haven’t been as impactful as this one-day session,” he said. “I got a couple of great ideas that I want to implement after attending this conference, like right away.”
Harris added: “It’s a nice reminder that there are many other people in the world who are trying to also work through some of the same things and that you’re not alone.”
Bryan Porter of Newark who is also a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., said: “As an African American, just hearing some of the thoughts about resiliency for young Black men and also having an impact on them personally and professionally really resonated with me. I used to work in mental health too, so it’s good to see that that’s included.” He and others in law enforcement led the session “Black & Blue: Uncensored Conversations with Law/Legal Professionals.”
In the scholars’ track, a panel of young men shared advice on navigating college as Black and Latinx males, goal-setting and creating support systems necessary for success. As the panel spoke and answered students’ questions, barbers gave free haircuts to the scholars in real time.
Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Director Rahjaun Gordon, who led the track, said many students told him they were blown away by the barbershop setting: “One student said, ‘It felt like I was at a barber shop having real conversations. It felt like home.’”
Among the 100 or so scholars was Nicholas Casciano, a high school sophomore at BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City. The event provided a “good bonding experience,” he said, adding that hearing from Black and Latinx male college students “gave me foresight into what I might be seeing, and helped me prepare and be ready for what’s coming ahead.” Casciano wants to go to college to study sports science and join a soccer or track team.
Barringer High School sophomore Elijah Battle of Newark said he learned from the barbers that “it’s the people you surround yourself with that can make you better.”
The experience of being surrounded by Black and Latinx young men and adults, he said, made him feel seen. “It made me feel, not special, but chosen,” said Battle, who has aspirations of studying mechanical engineering at NJIT.
The Symposium was co-led by Daniel Jean, assistant provost for Special Programs, EOF and Academic Success, and Carolina Gonzalez, assistant dean for Administrative, External and Student affairs in the College of Education and Human Services.
“Today was a vision realized for the University,” Jean said at the end of the event. “We are positioning ourselves to be the national leader for Black and Latinx male success at all levels, and we are very excited about the partnerships that were born today.”
Gonzalez agreed: “Today was an amazing, energizing and inspiring experience. This was an opportunity to gather in a community and have action-oriented conversations centered around issues that matter to all of us.”
The event, which was sponsored by ETS and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, closed out with Jean inviting remaining attendees onstage for a commemorative photo. Later, Jean said: “The highlight for me was seeing over 100 scholars and 100 professionals come together and celebrate Black and Latinx male excellence. We’re going to keep the MEGA initiative moving forward with very intentional, large-scale programs.”
While the Alliance will continue its work year-round, its next event will take place in the fall, when more than 300 Black and Hispanic high school students are expected to attend the second Future College Graduate Conference on Montclair’s campus in fall 2023.
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