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Montclair State University Symposium Touts ‘Triumph Over Trauma’

Program empowers male high school students with college insights, brave conversations and cultural performances

Posted in: Admissions, Alumni, Education, University

A male student put his arms around classmates in a roomful of young male high school students.
Students from Paterson Arts & Science Charter School bond during an exercise at Montclair’s Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance Symposium.

For many  high school students participating in the Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance (MEGA) Symposium at Montclair State University, their favorite part of the half-day program was the open discussions about traumatic experiences. 

Friends and fellow ninth-graders at James J. Ferris High School in Jersey City Julian Aragon and Nelson Aquino and others said the March 8 event and its theme “Triumph Over Trauma,” created a safe space for the more than 250 high school students to hear and open up about similar experiences.

“They talked about trauma, which I think is important, because all people go through problems each day,” Aragon said. “It’s important to talk about this, so people don’t get stuck or suffer from depression.”

Both he and Aquino said they appreciated learning coping skills for dealing with trauma. “It makes me think about my friends who also have been through the same experience,” Aquino says. “It makes me think I can be a better person by being with them and helping them come through these experiences that they’re going through.”

Aquino says he wants to attend Montclair and study pre-law. “The event is inspiring because I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes me think about life after high school and being at a university,” he said.

Seated male students listen during a conference.
James J. Ferris High School’s Julian Aragon, right, and Nelson Aquino, seated to his right, said they appreciated hearing how to deal with trauma.

For Wilfred Kounde, a senior at American History High School in Newark, the theme reinforced for him that he is on the right track. “As a person who wants to go into psychology, to hear grown men who look like me talk about their experiences with trauma gives me more hope to keep going with the field that I want to pursue,” he said.

 The event, now in its second year, gathered Black and Latinx young men and counselors from 15 high schools in more than half a dozen counties, as well as undergraduates from five colleges and universities, according to Tatiá M. Haywood, MEGA organizer and EOF counselor. The MEGA Symposium specifically targets young men to provide them with information and experiences to encourage them to pursue college degrees. It is among Montclair’s efforts to counteract the precipitous drop in college and university enrollment of young men, particularly young men of color.

From the outset, the stage was set for the young men to feel safe in sharing their feelings. They also heard the message that asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness. “How many of us have been harmed, scarred and made to believe that we are broken? We were made to believe that the suffering we carry in our hearts was a normal part of our lives but the truth is that our pain was not supposed to be a permanent state,” said psychologist Enmanuel Mercedes. “We’re not broken. We are wounded and in the process of healing. Today, I invite you to keep your hearts and your minds open as we share with each other the many paths that we have taken to triumph over trauma, so that we may find the healing we need for ourselves and support those that need healing in our respective communities.”

A room filled with young men listen to a speaker on stage.
Assistant Provost for Special Programs, EOF and Academic Success Daniel Jean shares parts of his personal story of “Triumph Over Trauma,” the theme of the second MEGA Symposium, sponsored by Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Assistant Provost for Special Programs, EOF and Academic Success Daniel Jean opened up about his personal life and delivered a message of inclusion. He shared how his family had moved a dozen times before he graduated high school, at one point becoming homeless and having to move in with relatives, as well as how violence had impacted his family.

“If you suffer from random violence and lost loved ones, you are not alone. If alcohol and drugs have impacted your life in any form or fashion, you are not alone,” he said. “If you plan to improve your family legacy, whatever that legacy is, you will not be alone. So that’s the overarching goal we’re trying to accomplish today, triumph over trauma…. We want you to understand that you will not be alone and that ultimately, you will get resources, strategies and tips for you to achieve all your personal professional dreams and not be stuck in any trauma or violence you experienced.”

The symposium again featured the popular Barbershop.EDU College Life Panel, where panelists address the audience as some participants are treated to haircuts. Matthew Salazar, a Montclair State University senior majoring in Family Science and Human Development with a concentration in Family Services and current president of the Latin American Student Organization, shared with the audience that he sought services from Counseling and Psychological Services on campus when dealing with personal hardship and heartbreak. 

“There’s a sense that mental health is a brittle condition, and it’s not a strong asset. I believe that around each area of life, you need mental health to get you through the tough parts, especially through college where you’re battling imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety and worries that you might not succeed,” Salazar said. “I think one healthy way of dealing with stress and mental health challenges is seeking therapy. Everyone should find outlets, through their teachers or advisors or people in your environment – family members, friends – to talk about stuff.”

A student speaks into a microphone while another, seated behind him, gets a haircut from a barber.
Montclair senior Matthew Salazar (with microphone) encourages students to seek help when dealing with mental health challenges.

Asked to share some coping strategies, Salazar told the audience that he likes to workout. “I think working out keeps your mind right, keeps your body right and keeps you spiritually in tune with yourself. Everybody should try to find something that really uplifts them physically, mentally, that gives them joy…and work through it all.”

For Omar Santos, a senior from East Side High School in Newark, the symposium provided an opportunity for an inaugural higher education campus visit. “It’s my first time ever going to college in general,” he said. “It’s been great.”

This year’s symposium included more cultural programming, including drum, dance and spoken-word performances by the troupe Culture Lovers; a trio also performed another spoken word titled “Baggage” that illustrated the burdens and expectations that can weigh down young men of color, particularly if they are first-generation college students, and encouraged them to lean on one another.

Three men perform a spoken word piece onstage for an audience of young male students.
Montclair alumnus Elija Blackwell ’19, left, and Faheed Washington ’19, right, perform “Baggage” with playwright Reggie Walker, center.

The program included an awards presentation. Carolina E. González, a former assistant dean at Montclair and now chief of staff and senior research associate at Bank Street College of Education, was presented with the MEGA Founder Award by Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Junius Gonzales. Also honored with MEGA Impact Awards were Altarik White, founder of Leaders for Life, presented by Jean; the student organization The Brotherhood/La Hermandad, presented by Jeronimo Valcarcel, EOF Counselor; Robert Reid, professor of Family Science and Human Development, presented by Rahjaun Gordon, director of EOF; and alumnus Michael Spence ’14, a pastor and motivational speaker who works with youth, whose award was presented by Rob Gilbert, sports psychologist and associate professor of Exercise Science and Physical Education.

A man stands on a platform with a microphone as men on the floor below lock arms and listen.
Montclair alumnus Michael Spence ’14, closed the conference with a rousing speech and had the men lock arms to convey the message that they are not alone and can rely on one another.


Montclair President Jonathan Koppell gestures while addressing MEGA participants.
Montclair President Jonathan Koppell welcomed MEGA participants, telling them “We’re focused on a particular population because Black and Latino men play a vital role in our community.”
A woman dances onstage as drummers play behind her.
Dancers and drummers from Culture Lovers perform during the MEGA Symposium.
Men listen during a presentation.
Counselors, panelists and speakers gathered at the Feliciano School of Business as part of the presentations held for professionals during the MEGA Symposium.
Young male students touch hands while surrounded by other students.
Students from Alexander Hamilton Preparatory Academy share a bonding moment during one of the exercises.
A large group of professionals pose for a photo on a staircase.
Counselors and professional staff who work with young male high school and college students during the MEGA Symposium pose for a group photo.
Two male students share a laugh, while one makes a peace sign.
Two students share a laugh during the MEGA Symposium.
A group of adults and students take a group selfie.
Some MEGA Symposium participants take a group selfie.
A large group of adults and students pose for a photo onstage.
A few of the more than 250 MEGA Symposium participants.

Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by John J. LaRosa for Montclair State University.