CHICAGO — For some young people, July is a month for getting in a few last weeks of relaxation before enrolling in college. For others, it’s also the lead-up to what could be one of the worst experiences of their lives. The luckiest of this latter group are steeling themselves against all that could go wrong.
Here in Chicago, young men who got into college but are otherwise unprepared to navigate the environment of a university campus are attending a five-week first-year-of-college boot camp called “The Wall.” It’s the brainchild of the Black Star Project, an organization that harnesses the power of parental and neighborhood involvement to drive academic excellence in the city’s black and Hispanic communities.
In their e-blast, the organization minces no words about how perilous college can be for young black and Hispanic men who have grown up on blood-spattered streets and graduate from college at far lower rates than white males: “It is estimated that 67 percent of young black men who start college return home as dropouts in their first year of being on a college campus. Some families send colleges their honor students and get ex-felons in return. Young black men get caught up in the traps of freedom, women, drugs, sports, parties, fraternities, et cetera without guidance or support and they flunk out of college.”
Phillip Jackson, the executive director of the Black Star Project, told me that parents, in a last-ditch effort to protect their boys before they enter a world that is scary and unknown, drag their sons to the afternoon-long Saturday sessions. These parents have heard the horror stories of their neighbors’ kids calling home from a college town’s jail three months after leaving home and want to avoid the nightmare.
“We’re telling them things that their parents don’t know or won’t tell them and that the dean at the school won’t tell them: ‘This is how young black men get arrested on a college campus, this is how young black men get trapped by women who go to college to find a man, this is the environment of the small, rural town where your campus is located, where you’re going to have a target on your back,’” said Jackson.
He says that being away from home, being surrounded by an unfamiliar culture and starting out woefully academically underprepared for college-level work are the top contributors to the U.S. Department of Education’s scant estimates for six-year graduation rates among African-American males (34 percent) and Hispanic males (46 percent). “Most wash out and come home thousands of dollars in debt within 12 months,” said Jackson. “[Inner-city schools] don’t adequately prepare young people for college — we have to come in and teach these kids organizational skills, study habits, success habits. For instance, we know that in the classroom young black men especially fail because they don’t ask questions. Well, you don’t ask questions on the streets of Chicago — you get shot for asking questions. But now they’re in a classroom in Edwardsville, Ill., and they have to [ask questions] or they fail. They have to code switch from culture to culture, but no one’s ever told them that. So we tell them.”
“Then there’s this idea of studying and working in groups. You look at Asian students, they work together in large groups to study, prepare for tests, help each other and they make all the top grades,” Jackson said. “But black students are lone rangers — and at the bottom flunking out. We teach them how to work in groups, which they’ve never done. But if you don’t know how to work in groups, you’re never going to succeed in corporate America.”
Plenty of organizations have released reports on how institutions can improve college outcomes for black and Hispanic males, but I’ve never seen one that emphasized the mentoring aspect that the Black Star Project has keyed in on. “We get young men who have themselves very recently graduated from college to teach these kids what to do and what not to do,” Jackson said. “It’s almost like providing a Harriet Tubman — a person who has gone to freedom but has come back to carry other slaves to freedom. This freedom is one of college graduation and we hope to create more graduates to start carrying others along this same path.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.