November, 2018

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A group of African-American men are finding support — and supporting each other — through a new initiative that is underway at six private colleges. Organized through the Minnesota Private College Fund, the program scholarships combine funds for students to use to cover tuition costs in their junior and senior years with a set of leadership and personal development opportunities.

Thirty students have taken part to-date, coming together in three groups over the last couple years. Depending on the cohort they’re in the students are referred to as Eddie Phillips Scholars and Ciresi Walburn Scholars, in recognition of the significant funding support that has come from two donors — the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota and Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children.

The aim is to help the men graduate ready to launch their post-baccalaureate careers. It starts over the summer before their junior years, when they complete a 12-week leadership course. During the next two years, their experiences include a paid summer internship, a retreat, a trip to a national leadership conference, regular cohort meetings, a writing course and networking sessions with prominent African-American businessmen. The focus on African-American men was chosen because of lower retention and completion rates for these students both nationally and in Minnesota.

As for why it matters, as always, students say it best. In September KMOJ’s Voices program featured two of the Ciresi Walburn Scholars — Andre Griffin, Augsburg University, and Amin Mahamoud, University of St. Thomas. Griffin is double majoring in secondary education and history and attended Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis; Mahamoud is majoring in economics and attended Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul. They were joined by Abdul Omari, program coordinator, and interviewed by co-hosts Rashida Fisher and Samuel Simmons. What follows are just a few excerpts from the conversation; the full transcript is available as well.

UNIQUE BENEFITS

Andre Griffin:

I think the biggest thing for me personally is that I feel like I don't have to do it alone any more. But it's not that I had that mindset the whole time like I had to do it alone, but I feel like a lot of times people of color, when they make it into college, they're so used to doing things alone that they often don't ask for help. In situations where they need help, they won't say, "I need help." They'll think, I can do this alone. . . .

Amin Mahamoud:

It's really having that support system and having peers to fall back on and having Dr. Omari, someone who's been through this college experience. His insights are really important, especially for me. I think I speak for the majority of the cohort as well. But just having someone to help navigate through that space, like Andre said, a predominately white institution and the ups and downs of being a person of color during your college career, just having that support system and peers to vent and communicate and go through the journey together has really been the best part and most beneficial part of this program.

STRENGTH OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOCUS

Andre Griffin:

I think the program and the class in particular is really beneficial and influential because I've never been in a classroom with all black faces and all people who look like me. It's just such a great feeling to be able to take that exhale and that deep breath and to really be your authentic self in a room because you don't have to worry about what you say or worry about the looks that you're going to get . . . It's something that I feel like everybody should get the opportunity to experience, just being in a classroom that is kind of centered around your culture and people who look like you because that's something that people of color don't get. But that's something that Caucasian students get often.

I didn't get my first black teacher until my first year of college. All that time I was never looking at a face that looked like mine. So it feels so nice to look all around and see a face like mine, not just the teacher and not just the students.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS ACROSS DIFFERENCE

Amin Mahamoud:

Speaking with some upperclassmen and seeing how they navigated through it and taking some information and some tips here and there, just approaching it with sincerity, I think, is one of the most important things. Just to elaborate on that, just assuming positive intention with people, it's easy to become pessimistic about outcomes when you see the statistics and you don't see people of color or your kind of ethnicity and religion on campus.

But just assuming that people are really doing it for the best, especially teachers in the higher ed and campus coordinators and such and speaking to that was really important to me.

There is a certain amount of luck to it. I'd love to say that there isn't, but there is. I don't know how much you could credit it to you building your own résumé and your own profile and then the chance of luck. But there are some components to that. But I think just really being sincere and opening to people who haven't shared those lived experiences and just assuming that positive intention in their understanding and their reaction goes a long way from the pessimistic view that can come when you're in a predominately white institution.

Andre Griffin:

. . . Kind of bouncing off what Amin said, my ethics teacher my first year gave me some great advice. He said, "You make family wherever you can." You go into the campus with the mindset of everybody here is a networking tool and I'm going to make family where I can.

IMPORTANCE OF PERSEVERENCE

Andre Griffin:

. . . I think a lot of people think that if you go to college that you either just do good off the bat or you do bad off the bat. But it's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of falling down and picking yourself up constantly. And it's a lot of correcting your own mistakes, being conscious of your own mistakes, noticing the imperfection, and trying to eliminate them one at a time.

When you want to just sit in your dorm and not do anything, you have to take that time and say, "You know what? The Black Student Union on campus is having an event, I'm going to go to that because that's an opportunity for me to better myself." It seems hard at 2 a.m. when you're studying for your essay. It seems hard to just keep going on and keep pushing, but what you have to keep doing is keep pushing because even if you may not be used to it, when you're studying that hard you're going to reap the fruits of your labor eventually.

PROGRAM IMPACT

Amin Mahamoud:

. . . For me personally, just finishing up my sophomore year and being approached with this opportunity, I really did not have a clear sense on how to approach graduation and whether it's graduate school or it's just employment and the future beyond that. But having people like Dr. Omari and my other scholars and peers and going through this process helps me really understand all of these little details that help build a clear vision for myself.

There was an exercise in the class, in the leadership course this past summer, where we had to write a big statement, sort of a vision statement for us and how we're going to work to do that every single day to achieve that goal. I still look at that statement from time to time and just use that as a north star in terms of approaching how I approach academics and extracurriculars.

For more about these program scholarships, contact Carolyn Jones, director of development, Minnesota Private College Fund, at [email protected].