If you don’t know Willie J. Hagan, the 10th President of California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) then you should. Dr. Hagan is a man on a mission with a laser focus on providing educational opportunities for young minorities who reside in Carson and the communities surrounding the university. Specifically, Dr. Hagan is intent on CSUDH doing its part to close the educational opportunity gaps for young Black males. The Sentinel sat down with Dr. Hagan and discussed CSUDH as a beacon of hope for the underserved and its outreach to engage young men and women of color.
LAS: CSUDH is called the “beacon of hope” for the surrounding communities. Do you believe that members of the Carson and surrounding communities see the University as that beacon?
Dr. Hagan: When you think about a beacon, you think about a light and I can say with the utmost confidence that we are a beacon for this community. I look at it from a number of ways: First in terms of demand. The demand for access is high at CSUDH. We get about 30,000 applicants a year and that number continues to grow. We accept around 3,000 students so the demand for an education at CSUDH remains high. We have graduated over 100,000 students since our existence and 65% of our student population is within 25 miles of our campus.
We also engage the community on a regular basis. We are proactive. We don’t wait for people to discover that we might be of value to them, we engage the community. We have a number of partnership programs and one program that is very special to us is our Male Success Alliance program (MSA).
MSA is our nationally recognized program that targets an issue close to my heart and that is the low graduation rates of Black and Latino males from college and high school. The mission of the MSA is to improve access, retention, and graduation rates of men of color so we talk about what it really takes to matriculate successfully here, the resources, and mentors that are available. We take male students who once thought that college wasn’t for them to show prospective students what is possible.
I am reminded in so many ways that our engagement with the community is not only seen but felt by community members who give me ‘shout-outs’ when I ride in the King Day parade. Many people along the parade route shout out, “Hey, my daughter went to CSUDH,” or the mother who holds up her baby and shouts, “Hey, when she grows up, she’s going to CSUDH!” The community knows we are here and I know that we only remain a beacon if we help our students succeed and then let the community know about their success. The message we seek to reinforce in the Black community is that their kids can not only come to CSUDH but they can graduate.
LAS: As an African American educator, is the message that education is the key to success dead? Why don’t young Black men (ages 16 to 30) see college as a viable option for them?
Dr. Hagan: People sometimes go with the information that they have. There are many young men who are growing up in poor circumstances and they haven’t had contact with men who have gone to college and become successful, so many believe that college is not an option for them or they think, “what’s the point.” Through our Male Success Alliance (MSA) program, we try to show what many young men see as impossibilities for them are really possibilities.
We realize that some young men are coming from families where no one has gone to college so getting the information to them is key. A lot of young Black men don’t know how to begin the college process, how they can finance college, and what resources are available to them. That’s why Super Saturday – our community outreach fair is so important to us. We attempt to dispel as many myths as we can as it relates to college and to get the information out in the community that college is more than an option – that it is necessary…it is a vehicle to upward mobility. It is still the best shot we have at success.
Our student population is 75% female and while there is nothing wrong with that, it does raise this question: where are the males and what are they doing? It comes down to all of us in the community making sure that young Black males are encouraged; that they see college educated, successful men who look like them. We are a university that was intentionally placed in this community to serve the underserved. We have not veered from that mission and it is my hope that we never will.
LAS: Black High School students (male and female) are still coming to college unprepared to function academically at the collegiate level. What do you believe has to happen at the high schools and middle schools to change the level of preparedness of Black students?
Dr. Hagan: We go into the middle and high schools with our Promise Program that says if you do the work, finish your requirements, and have the desire to go on to college, we will help you get admitted here. We have a Summer Bridge Academy that addresses deficiencies in core courses. We know what it takes to succeed in college and it’s our goal to provide that information to as many high school students that want it. Sometimes it takes just one person saying that we know you can do better, that you can do this and that’s who we are as an institution. Our professors care, our administrators and staff genuinely care so a student who desires to matriculate successfully will find encouragement on this campus.
LAS: Super Saturday is your college fair to assist students and their families with the college process. What would you say to parents in particular to encourage their attendance?
Dr. Hagan: Super Saturday is probably our most important outreach. It is a day-long college fair for middle and high school students, their parent, families and friends to find out all they need to know about college, majors, programs, and resources that are available. Our faculty and staff (everyone really) are available to discuss how CSUDH strives to close the opportunity gaps and increase the numbers of minority students who attend and graduate from college. If you want to know about the SAT, we have counselors to answer those questions, if you want to know what financial aid forms you need to complete, those answers are readily available.
It’s a day where there is one-stop shopping in terms of getting your questions about college answered. It’s our opportunity as a university to remind and reinforce our commitment to the surrounding communities to educate as many as possible.
LAS: The average Black student at CSUDH seems to be older than the traditional student (on the average of 27 years) and employed full-time. What resources will be made available for these students that will encourage continued matriculation?
Dr. Hagan: We are ranked #10 (by the Washington Monthly magazine) in the nation as a university that serves adult learners the best. We received high marks for ease of transfer, flexibility of programs, and services for adult learners. The fact that an outside entity recognizes that we do a lot for the older learner is wonderful for us. We understand that students who work need flexibility, and they need services at night. So we do our best to accommodate those needs. We are well positioned to work with the adult learner.
LAS: The University seems to have good relations with African American churches in the community. How important are the churches to the success of the African American Outreach Initiative?
Dr. Hagan: We have Super Sunday where we go into the churches and communicate not just with students but to get the information to the parents. It’s another way we hope to overcome the ‘I don’t know how to apply…to do it’ by communicating resources. The churches are critically important to young men and women going to college especially when it comes to Black males. We are fortunate to have churches in our local communities who understand that education is key to strengthening the community.
LAS: Do you understand the frustration of young Black men and women who feel that we don’t understand? That we don’t really see them?
Dr. Hagan: Absolutely. I have to give a convocation speech and I’m going to talk about the new challenges, divisiveness and intolerance that are a part of the fabric of our country, our communities. I’m Black, so Black lives matter. My step-son is a police officer so blue lives matter. My wife is Caucasian so white lives matter. I have friends who are gay and transgender so those lives matter. I agree with those who say all lives matter but I also agree with those who said that all lives matter but that’s an aspiration that has not been met. If you have been Black, female, or gay in this country or any minority in this country, at some point in time you have been told that you don’t matter. I get the frustration and it’s our goal to really listen and to ensure that our students are heard.
I think about the people that encouraged me to go to college. If you had asked an 18-year-old Willie Hagan if he could be a college president one day, he would have thought you were joking but here I am. And it began with just one person telling me that I could succeed.
For more information on CSUDH, visit www.csudh.edu.