Standing in the Gap: Male Student Success Initiative Mentors’ Experiences with Men of Color

How the Male Student Success Initiative at the Community College of Baltimore County Adapted During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Black male college students sits at desk and takes notes while looking intently at his laptop

The College Completion Network’s MDRC research team is conducting an efficacy evaluation of the Male Student Success Initiative (MSSI) at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) as part of the Men of Color College Achievement Project (MoCCA). This fourth installment in the MSSI blog series draws on research interviews with MSSI staff and students, CCBC administrators, and observations to highlight how the program has become fully remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (See the first, second, and third installments in the series.)

By mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many colleges to move online, with little time to prepare to serve new student needs arising from the health crisis. As faculty, administrators, and staff at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) worked to shift to online services, the group that runs the Male Student Success Initiative (MSSI)—a program designed to support the success of male students of color—doubled down to maintain support and mentorship for their students amid the turbulence.

MSSI’s program model includes an ambitious set of research-based services to support male students of color, including a culturally contextualized first-year student success course, assigned mentors (who are men of color as well), connections with student support services on campus, leadership and professional development opportunities, and community-building activities that reflect racial and ethnic identities. For many MSSI students, the college’s move online presented many new challenges. “I kind of miss being in class around people,” one MSSI student said. “It was motivating to see people [who] want to work as hard as me. I just try to stay motivated through it all.”

A research team at MDRC is studying MSSI as part of the Men of Color College Achievement (MoCCA) project. In April and November 2020, the team interviewed MSSI and CCBC staff members, observed classes, and ran focus groups with CCBC students. Of the 32 MSSI students enrolled in spring 2020 and the 46 students enrolled in fall 2020, the research team spoke with 17 of them. Through these activities, the research team documented four major ways in which MSSI adapted to keep students engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Focusing on time management skills and flexible due dates

Prior research has shown that time management and organization can contribute to college success (see Krumrei-Mancuso et al., 2013). For many MSSI students, online learning is not easy. “I never wanted to take online classes in the first place ‘cause I don’t really learn that way, from the computer,” said one MSSI student. “I’m more suitable in the classroom. So having to transition to being on the computer and learning from home, it’s basically like teaching ourselves. Which is now more difficult ‘cause we already don’t know it.” Some MSSI students also faced new work/life challenges while adjusting to the self-guided nature of online learning. “Now that I have the luxury of I can do anything I want, I find myself procrastinating a lot,” said another MSSI student.

Recognizing that many students had taken on part-time or full-time work since the pandemic began, MSSI instructors teaching Academic and Career Development (ACDV) 101 modified the course content and due dates. One ACDV 101 instructor moved up the unit on time management to the second week of class to better support his students’ needs. ACDV 101 professors also were more flexible with assignment due dates to accommodate students’ work schedules and tech troubles. Students noted that the increased flexibility is useful, as long as they didn’t let their assignments pile up until the end of the semester.

Building mentoring relationships over video

Research shows that online mentoring can be effective, especially when based on established relationships between mentors and mentees (see Drysdale et al., 2014; Rashid & Sarkar, 2018; Stoeger et al., 2021). MSSI success mentors strive to meet with their students for at least three mentoring sessions per semester, but now these meetings occur via FaceTime, Microsoft Teams video calls, or telephone. Between sessions, success mentors communicate more with their students by email and text. One mentee said, “I still stay in touch with [my mentor] here and there.” He says his mentor tells him, “‘Hey, keep your head up . . . Keep doing your thing. All you can do is try your best.’ And then he’ll ask me, ‘If there’s anything you need help with, shoot me an email and I got you.’ ”

During in-person sessions before the pandemic, some MSSI success mentors helped students identify their needs and then walked the students to other support offices on campus, such as financial aid, career services, and tutoring. In 2020, one success mentor described trying to bring that warm handoff online by sharing his screen and showing his mentee how to navigate the CCBC website to access those same services.

What is one key to fostering a mentoring relationship via a video call? Both parties need to turn on their video cameras. Mentors noted that turning on video can build rapport in the relationship and help them read students’ body language, although it does not fully make up for not being able to meet in person. One MSSI student, who has been doing virtual mentoring sessions, said his mentor “still is supportive. He helps out a lot, actually.” Another MSSI student said,

[My success mentor] is pretty much the only person that I really talk to school-wise . . . during the pandemic. He helped me a lot ‘cause at first, it wasn’t looking too good for me, and I didn’t really know what to do. But I ended up calling him, and he talked me through it. I’m on my way to finishing my semester.

Giving students the technology and time to connect

Research shows that active community engagement is one of the key pillars to persistence in initiatives that serve men of color (see Harewood, 2013; Tovar, 2013). Last spring, MSSI staff members and leaders prioritized making sure that students had the technology they needed to stay engaged in schoolwork and the MSSI community. In mentoring sessions and through emails, MSSI staff gave students information on how to get a laptop and access WiFi hotspots. “I’ve gotten enough information as a student that helped me, like where computers are located, how to get the computers and WiFi, tutoring,” one student said. “Most of [that information is] either relayed to me through my teachers or sent directly to my CCBC email. I mean, I think I have to commend the school on their response to the crisis. It’s a sudden change for everyone.”

Seeing a need to relay information about technology, grading policies, and other campus announcements, MSSI staff began hosting a regular MSSI CARES call, which brings together students and staff via Zoom to build community, identify student needs, and boost engagement with the program. One MSSI student said,

It was actually pretty cool to just sit down with a couple men of color and kind of talk about our personal life, how things are going right now. And just things we can do to help better ourselves. I think it just kind of spiraled out to where once we were done talking about each other and how we can help, it just came into a talk about our interests.

The CARES calls are now held monthly and have spawned study groups, a leadership series, and an end-of-semester celebration.

Offering more leadership and professional development opportunities

Prior research indicates that leadership and professional development activities can be especially important for students of color as they navigate the college environment and plan for the future (see Harewood, 2013; Harper, 2014). MSSI created new ways for students to plug into professional development and culturally relevant experiences both inside and outside CCBC. Through virtual MSSI Ujima Coaching, CCBC faculty offer students additional academic support. Outside the college, MSSI sent students to the virtual Maryland Male Students of Color summit and also planned virtual information sessions for spring 2021 with local 4-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities as a replacement for in-person tours.

It has been hard for the MSSI program to predict how much students will engage in the online substitutions for support services and classes. Still, knowing that engagement, community, and mentorship have been key components of MSSI, the program is striving to create a new online community that supports students who are dealing with heavier work schedules, the responsibility to keep themselves on track academically, and a lack of in-person relationship building. For some MSSI students, the support and flexibility offered by the mentors and professors have helped them adjust when they otherwise might have given up.


Drysdale, J. S., Graham, C. R., & Borup, J. (2014). An online high school “shepherding” program: Teacher roles and experiences mentoring online students. Journal of Technology & Teacher Education, 22(1), 9–32.

Harewood, W. R. (2013). Addressing the crisis of African American males in community colleges: The impact of leadership & Black male initiatives (Publication No. 3609894) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Harper, S. R. (2014). (Re)setting the agenda for college men of color: Lessons learned from a 15-year movement to improve Black male student success. In R. A. Williams (Ed.), Men of color in higher education: New foundations for developing models for success (pp. 116–143). Stylus.

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., Newton, F. B., Kim, E., & Wilcox, D. (2013). Psychosocial factors predicting first-year college student success. Journal of College Student Development, 54(3), 247–266.

Rashid, M., & Sarkar, J. (2018). Cyber mentoring in an online introductory statistics course. Educational Research Quarterly, 41(3), 25–38.

Stoeger, H., Heilemann, M., Debatin, T., Hopp, M. D. S., Schirner, S., & Ziegler, A. (2021). Nine years of online mentoring for secondary school girls in STEM: An empirical comparison of three mentoring formats. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 153–173.

Tovar, E. (2013). A conceptual model on the impact of mattering, sense of belonging, engagement/involvement, and socio-academic integrative experiences on community college students’ intent to persist (Publication No. 3557773) [Doctoral dissertation, Claremont Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

MDRC's Men of Color College Achievement Project research team is affiliated with the College Completion Network. Learn more about the team’s Male Student Success Initiative study. This project is funded through grant R305N160026 from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.