James Harris, a business accounting major and Africana studies minor at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), is more than happy to help high school student Raul Ruiz when he calls looking for a ride to school, a few bucks or for Harris to let his teachers know he can’t make it to school.
Ruiz has come a long way since Harris began mentoring him at Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles, one of the schools he has been assigned as an academic mentor in CSUDH’s Male Success Alliance (MSA).
“I met Raul when he was involved in a gang. He was very quiet when we first met. I found out he had failing grades in all his classes, that his parents neglected him, and that sometimes he didn’t have a place to sleep,” said Harris, who joined the MSA in fall 2014. “We talked and I learned the ways in which he wanted to grow. After mentoring and tutoring him for a while, he began calling me up when he needed help with something. I now talk to him every day. Eventually, he got all A’s. He was proud and sent his grades to my phone.”
Harris, a 20-year-old sophomore who lives in Carson but grew up in Rialto, was honored with the Inspirational Spirit Award during the 18th Annual Black History Celebration luncheon, hosted by the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce at the Torrance Marriot on Feb. 26. He’s was honored alongside renowned African American figures in entertainment, business and sports, such as Clarence Ulrich, lead vocalists of The Drifters, former Los Angeles Lakers power forward A.C. Green, and Ted Lance, who portrayed beloved bartender Isaac Washington on the 1970s television series The Love Boat.
During the luncheon, Harris discussed his work in the MSA, a student success initiative focused on improving the educational outcomes of young men of color at CSUDH and in the communities served by the university. The initiative seeks to create a college-going, college-staying, and college–graduating culture among young men through academic support, professional development and mentoring of their peers and students in the middle and high schools.
“We reach out to young men because we are less successful than African American and Latino women, as well as our Asian and White male counterparts in graduating from the Cal State University system,” said Harris. “At MSA I met my older ‘brothers’—Leonidas Salon and Jordan Silvestre—who supported and pushed me to get involved with other organizations on campus.”
Along with the MSA and his studies, Harris also finds time to serve as secretary of the Black Student Union, commissioner of student activities for Associated Students, Inc. (ASI), and as treasurer for the National Society of Leadership and Success.
Harris also benefits from the mentoring he receives through the MSA, as well as the personal and professional development and civic engagement opportunities the alliance offers its members. At the luncheon, he acknowledged two of his personal mentors and peers who met through the MSA, as well as William Franklin, CSUDH’s interim vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, and MSA’s Project Coordinator Matthew Smith.
Harris also worked with teenage males at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles for a short time, encouraging them to become “college ready” and to not only attend, but graduate from college.
“I started at Crenshaw High School, but was transferred to the middle school pretty quickly. During those couple of weeks I really connected with some of the students,” said Harris. “I still text and meet up with them when I can to give them the guidance that they are not getting in school. It’s about giving them an opening to talk to us. I’m not just working with them—I see it as a brotherhood.”
When Harris first arrived at CSUDH he “wasn’t involved in anything.” He now believes it takes a dedicated mentor to show a college student the best course toward graduation and success in life.
“I remember my first semester at Dominguez Hills. You can say I was an introvert. I would just go to class, then go right back up to my dorm. Because I wasn’t involved, I felt disconnected and questioned my relevance as a college student,” said Harris. “When I met my brothers from the Male Success Alliance, I decided to join. These are all wonderful men who have shaped me and helped me ‘pave the way.’ In fact, since coming to Cal State Dominguez Hills, my older brothers and sisters [siblings] have decided to also enroll in college.”
The sixth of 10 siblings, Harris was a “stand out” at home amongst his brothers and sisters, he said, and was the first to attend college. When he was just 10 years old, his father, James Thomas Harris II, would often put him in charge and tell him, “It’s your turn. Make sure you lock up the house and take care of this and that” before he went to work.
“When my father was working I would and stay with my mother,” said Harris. “She would go over my homework assignments with me. She wasn’t a high school graduate, so there were some things she didn’t understand. YouTube videos really helped with some school work, like algebra.”
When James goes home to Rialto on the weekends his younger brothers and sisters “love to see him coming,” according to his father, and he often cuts their hair as well as the hair of other kids in the neighborhood. He plans to become a certified public accountant after graduation and own a chain of barber shops in his community and overseas. He also wants to continue his “legacy of creating a college ready graduation-focused environment for underserved students.”
“My son is doing what I knew he was going to do at a very young age. Out of all the kids that we had I knew I would end up here [being honored] one day,” said Harris’ father. “He’s motivated, talented, energetic and doing very positive things. He’s a much-loved big brother to my kids—he’s always been a leader. I’m very proud of him.”
Harris closed his remarks by thanking all those who have mentored him, and gave a special shout-out to his dad.
“I’d like to recognize my father, James Harris II. Although we’ve had our ups and downs, I cannot describe how much his support and motivation has meant to my success thus far,” he said. “When I was little, he would wake me up in the middle of the night and ask for my notebooks and previous tests so that he could brag to his buddies about my penmanship and test scores. The words planted in my head by my father before enrolling at CSU Dominguez Hills were, ‘James, break the cycle. That’s all I want you to do for me. Become successful.’”