Ten young men, all African American and Latino students, stood in front of an audience of about 600 of their high school and college peers during the California State University, Dominguez Hills Male Success Alliance Third Annual Spring Summit held in the Loker Student Union ballroom on April 24 as part of an exercise to illustrate a point: the odds against male students of color completing high school or college are staggering.
Making the point graphically real, motivational speaker and guest keynote Ernesto Mejia of CoolSpeak, a youth engagement company that campaigns for minority students to stay in and finish high school and college, asked the students why they want to go to college. Then he asked each of the 10 students, one by one, to sit down right where they stood, until only two were left standing. Mejia said that according to statistics, those sitting represented minority men who were told by someone in their life—whether at home or school —that they couldn’t go to college. Those students who sat also represented minority males who entered and exited college without a degree
Mejia mimicked what the students might hear if they let others hold them back from achieving their goals, “I know you wanted to prove something to your parents, but it’s not going to happen. I know you wanted to be an example, but it not going to happen. I know you want money, but it’s minimum wage for you, bro. I know you want to make a difference, but…”
Mejia went on to say that for African American students, the high school dropout rate in many areas is about 46 to 48 percent, and for Latinos, it’s even worse.
The Male Success Alliance (MSA) aims to improve those percentages of high school and college graduation through a peer-based mentorship network, said William Franklin, associate vice president of student success services and MSA Summit organizer. Over the last three years, the MSA has engaged and connected with close to 350 CSU Dominguez Hills students who have attended the annual summit or the freshmen convocation. Approximately 50 of them are now active members and there are 15 officers, who oversee the organization’s academic, social and personal development areas.
The three-year-old MSA program will begin to have alumni members in a couple of years. Then, Franklin said, he hopes the network will extend from MSA alumni, to its university members, and eventually to high school MSA programs as they develop, so students can benefit from those who are one step ahead in the academic journey.
Dressed in their distinctive blazers, Franklin said the mission of MSA members is to raise awareness and engage other young men to make a commitment to achieving academic success. Once connected through the MSA, members keep each other accountable for developing good study habits, going to class, getting good grades, and most importantly, finishing school.
“It is a movement to ensure that – with graduation rates of men of color being so low here, in the CSU system, and nationally – we do what we can [to turn that around],” said Franklin.
Mejia reported more sobering statistics: half of the people on welfare are high school dropouts, more than 80 percent of minority inmates are high school dropouts, high school dropouts are more likely to be single parents, and they are more likely to not have health care coverage. He also noted that daily, in the U.S., 4,133 [youth] are arrested and 18,493 public school students are suspended.
Getting back to the 10 students in his exercise, Mejia (acting the part of a student) said, “’When I graduate from high school, no one is going to give me a check.’” He responded to his own statement, “Actually they will, because you’ll be earning more money than high school dropouts – on average, $10,000 more annually.”
“’Well no one is going to give me a check just because I graduated from college.’ Actually they will,” said Mejia, explaining the difference between a high school dropout and a college graduate is about $1 million over a lifetime. “So they will pay. But, more importantly it gives you opportunities and flexibility. It gives you the option to choose your own career.”
Mejia made the point that everyone has all they need to succeed in school and life—he gave himself as an example.
Mejia, a Latino whose family experienced racially driven attacks and discrimination, was a college dropout, but he turned his life around and earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership with a focus on higher education and worked his way up through administration to become a college dean. He said he left his academic career to help motivate students, who are like him when he was younger, to go to college.
“You have to be proud of who you are, where you’re from and what you are about,” Mejia said, adding that he hoped each student could have the courage to appreciate their own unique qualities, to get an education for a better life, and to follow their dreams.
But, Franklin said, to get a college education a student needs a support system and that it’s okay to ask for help. Six breakout sessions – centered on discussing a short PBS video “Too Important to Fail,” reported by Tavis Smiley, and “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”, a poem written by Tupac Shakur – were part of the process to help educate students about the importance of connecting with others and achieving in spite of the odds they may face.
The MSA Summit also included a second keynote talk delivered by Tyrone Bledsoe, who earned a doctorate in counseling and student affairs administration from the University of Georgia, and is the founder and executive director of the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB), a national program started in 1990, which CSU Dominguez Hills MSA was modeled after and associated with.
“We have the weight of their experience and have [access to] all their materials. We’re now a part of a national database, in terms of tracking retention,” Franklin said, adding that this year the MSA will begin to track the grade point averages of its active members.
The MSA program seems to be making local connections, too. City of Carson Councilman Mike Gipson, visited and spoke to the audience about his journey from high school to being an elected official.
“The moment he said he was from Fremont High School, those students sat up a little taller in their chairs,” said Franklin, referring to the approximately 50 students visiting from Gipson’s alma mater.
The MSA, initiated at the urging of García to improve retention and graduation rates among minority men, has been funded in part by a grant from the President’s Creative Initiative Program and Associated Students Incorporated to invite 400 local high school students to campus for this year’s summit.