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

Why Building Community Is Essential to Improving the Male Student Success Initiative

Black male success mentor talking with a Black male college student while sitting on a bench in a park

This is the third installment in a Q&A series highlighting the experiences of success mentors at the Community College of Baltimore County and the students of color they support as part of the Male Student Success Initiative. See also the first and second installments in the series.

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). Students participating in MSSI enroll in a culturally contextualized section of CCBC’s college orientation course, Academic Development 101: Transitioning to College (ACDV 101), and are paired with a success mentor.

Rashida Welbeck head shotIn this third installment of the Q&A series, “Standing in the Gap: MSSI Mentors’ Experiences with Men of Color,” Rashida Welbeck, project director of MoCCA, discusses with the MSSI mentors and program coordinator why building community among MSSI students and staff is part of the program’s continuous improvement strategy.

Welbeck: What has your experience been trying to form a community of men of color through MSSI? Do you find community to be an important factor in MSSI?

Julian Cuffie head shot

Julian Cuffie, MSSI Success Mentor & ACDV 101 Instructor, Owings-Mills Campus: It's important because it takes a village. You're only as strong as the people you keep around you. I believe that iron sharpens iron and with our backgrounds, we’re able to help these students navigate and be successful. The community that we’re building and the bond that we’re forming will help their success.

Victor Uchendu head shotVictor C. Uchendu Jr., MSSI Success Mentor, Essex Campus: One of the pillars of the program is brotherhood and getting to know the MSSI staff. I have students that stop by almost every day just to say “Hi,” or sit here before their classes.

Markton Cole head shotMarkton D. Cole, MSSI Success Mentor & ACDV 101 instructor, Catonsville Campus: For me, community has happened more within the classroom. Last year there was a better opportunity to create that bond of brotherhood. Within the classroom there are opportunities [for students] to be open and share their experiences through class discussion. From the staff perspective, the challenges to building community come from turnover in the leadership. I think that we'll have to tackle that. Until that is done, there will continue to be challenges in terms of how we look at [community] from a staffing perspective.

Jeffrey Wright head shotJeffrey Wright, MSSI program coordinator: In learning about social capital, they learn that the group is critical because as an individual ... you don’t know it all yourself, you haven’t seen it all. Once you have a strong community, you multiply your understanding exponentially. If I haven’t traveled outside Baltimore, but you've been around the world, then I see through your lens. If you [have] read The Road or Booker T. [Washington] and I haven't, then I can connect with you and see it through your lens. If you understand certain things about IT and I don't, I get it through your lens.

Community is important, especially among men of color, because unfortunately sometimes we can be combative or corrosive to one another. We can believe the hype and attack, and not trust each other. The more you build community, the more you build opportunities for men to stay, get involved, and grow. Within a community, there isn’t a homogeneous group; just because we're men of color doesn't mean we're one and the same. We’re a diverse group of thinkers, people who have experienced different things, people who desire different things.

The community among staff is important, too. We need to be able to trust one another, believe in each other, and have conversations that are about the business. If we feel something [is] not right or could be done better, we need to have well-intentioned discussions, for those discussions to be heard, and then acted upon.

Welbeck: Specifically, what do you think would be most helpful to strengthen the community aspect of MSSI for students and staff?

Cole: I think we throw community around a lot. Particularly for students, it’s imperative that it is sincere and shown. It’s a little difficult when there hasn't been an opportunity to see that happen on a longitudinal basis since the program hasn’t been around long enough. If we stick with the dynamics of the program, and students see this operational for a while, then community and brotherhood will come to fruition.

Uchendu: The stability of the program will determine the success and engagement of the students. If the students see that we are around and we're successful, that will filter down and get them interested in becoming more engaged with the program. It’s important that they see that this program is still around even after they have graduated.

Wright: For students, we’ve had a difficult time bringing all the campuses together to form some sort of cohort meeting, and we've tried. Part of the problem has been the logistics of figuring out where and when to meet. MSSI hasn’t had a great opportunity to join as one [group]. The best time it's happened was the African American lecture series back in February 2020. Seventeen men showed up because I was able to get transportation from each individual campus.

Building community is about being involved. You’re not a pawn being moved, but you’re a part of the whole process. You help to plan, organize, create. When it’s finished, you can see your fingerprints on it. Community means having a higher degree of consistent involvement among everybody.

Welbeck: You've taken a few approaches to determine what the needs are for the students and the program. Can you share your approach and any specific tools or resources you use in assessing program needs in terms of strategy or staff support?

Wright: One way I assess our needs is through the lens of assessing students' needs first, and then backward mapping from that point. For example, from stopping into their ACDV 101 classes, I’ve been able to help some of the students write and stay on task with writing assignments. Then I’m able to talk with their instructor about students who are having difficulty writing. The instructor will strategize to get students more time or work one-on-one to have them prepare.

I’ve noticed that some instructors are more engaging than others. To have men of color together in a classroom doesn’t mean a whole lot. It might be aesthetically pleasing, but how you purpose what happens there is what really matters.

If you, as an instructor, share your story and experience as a man of color, then you’ve done more than just herd a bunch of men into the classroom. If you look at organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), CORE (Congress on Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and so forth, these were organizations that were purposed for people of color in America. Dr. [Martin Luther] King at SCLC, the folks at the NAACP, James Farmer with CORE, they had very strong purposes and very strong outcomes. We can’t be satisfied with saying we have 15 men of color in the classroom.

Welbeck: Anything else you want to talk about with some of the challenges of forming community for men of color at CCBC? Or things that you anticipate MSSI being able to do going forward to address the various challenges?

Wright: To connect with these young men of color, you have to at least acknowledge them as human beings first. Call them by their names, shake their hands. You have to at least give them a voice. One thing that men of color have always had is a voice, the ability to express themselves and articulate themselves. Through systems of oppression, our ability to write and adhere to grammar and the mechanics of language may falter a little bit, not because of our innate inability, but because of our lack of quality education. If you don’t give men a voice in the classroom, what was the purpose of having all the brothers together if they can’t share and have a voice and be heard?

Editor’s note: These interviews were conducted during the 2019–20 academic year—before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the MSSI program was apparent.

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.