At Compton College, every student is a success story, which is not just a statement, but our campus motto. I believe every community college student can be successful with the right academic and student support services. And that right there is the key, support. No one succeeds alone, and our Black students are no exception. In our continued fight for Black student success, we must be bold and innovative in addressing this student group’s issues while removing the barriers that keep them from meeting their goals. But implementing more programs and services is not enough. It’s time to expand our reach beyond the academic institutions and build a system of support both on campus and in the alumni community so students feel confident in their abilities and have role models who prove that success is possible.
This third article in my “Unapologetically Fighting for Black Student Success” series focuses on alumni as partners in education. Graduates are in a unique position to mentor and guide current students and hold colleges and universities accountable for student success.
Establishing University Connections
Alumni are linked to their alma mater in many ways, a connection that starts in their first days on campus. When I started my second year at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I didn’t see too many students like me, so I created a program called “Destination Higher Education” that invites admitted Black students to the campus to learn more about the university and meet other students. Today it’s the most significant recruitment activity at UC Santa Cruz for admitting Black students, representing 4.6% of the student body. It’s programs like this that begin to build meaningful connections. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in American studies at UC Santa Cruz, I returned to education to earn a doctorate at the University of California, Irvine, where I previously worked as director of the Early Academic Outreach Program. While at UCI, I re-established a partnership between local school districts, including Compton Unified School District and the university. Today, I continue to work with students while connecting with the university, in addition to supporting three different scholarships I established at my alma maters. Yet, I know students from across the nation tell stories about finding a shortage of support and lack of connection to their higher education institution.
After graduation, many students are ready to move on, but alumni need to continue their relationship with their alma mater and classmates. They can become involved in efforts to improve the college experience of current students and make changes on many levels. Colleges and universities rely on alumni for donations, job placement leads, and serving as ambassadors of the brand. In return, alumni must take an activist role and motivate institutions to create programs and policies that promote equity and inclusion. In spring 2018, I wrote a piece for UC Santa Cruz Magazine titled “Stay Connected; It Isn’t All About the Money.” In this article, I encourage alumni to become connected or reconnected with the university. Furthermore, I mentioned that being engaged is not always about money (though, of course, colleges and universities will gladly accept a donation). Instead, it is about giving back to students (remember when you were one?) and maintaining a connection with the academic programs, fellow alumni, and, most importantly, with UC Santa Cruz, which has made a difference in my life.
More than ever, Black alumni must advocate and support Black students at the institutions we attended and graduated from.
Developing Alumni Connections
At UC Santa Cruz, I was fortunate to meet lifelong friends who are now prominent alumni – including Bill Casher, the associate director of laboratory operations at (PPD) Gilead Sciences. Back then, we were active in the UC Santa Cruz Black Men’s Alliance (BMA), a dynamic group that focuses on building community, discussing current topics, and participating in community service projects. In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, we reconnected with the BMA by establishing an alumni group that meets weekly; not surprisingly, we found the same sense of community from our university days. “Being together again, we realized we have so much power as a group, and we need to do more than talk on a Tuesday,” Bill noted. “We found that we were ready to pursue a level of activism much larger than ourselves and our own thoughts.” I am proud to be a part of this group that now directly works with undergrads. So many in our group are accomplished in their field. I agree with Bill that we have a responsibility to help, whether that means getting students in touch with professionals in their areas of interest or listening about their campus experiences as Black men and offering guidance.
Bill explained that after graduating, many alumni do want to give back and often will just write a check. “But Black people deserve more than that, they need more than that,” he said. “We need to build community, a sustainable model to engage universities to serve the Black student population. Back then, the goal of BMA was to put our words into practice; the same is true for our alumni group today.” We are now focusing on building monetary support, creating mentorship, recruitment, and retention programs, and utilizing our network to bridge the gap between professions and graduation. We also want to help with student debt and show how the cost of college disproportionally affects students of color.
What we hear on our weekly phone calls is that universities often neglect their alumni in specific demographics, particularly Black alumni. When they reach out, they don’t account for the Black student experience or the Black alumni experience. There is a disconnect there – it is very obvious – and alumni need to change that. There are many groups of alumni from our California community colleges and universities that are meeting and interacting with our students, now it’s time to formalize these groups and meet with college and university leaders to discuss the Black student experience and ask the colleges and universities what role or assistance they need from us. After the initial meeting, we must make sure we hold these colleges and universities accountable for their actions or lack of action related to Black student success.
Closing the Loop
As president/CEO of Compton College, I am held accountable by the elected Compton Community College District Board of Trustees, residents, faculty, staff, managers, and most importantly, our students. But for me, I am not just a college president. I am a Black college president, and with that comes an additional layer of accountability linked to the history of the Black experience in America. I have a responsibility to do more for my community than the generation before so I can continue the legacy of the people who achieved so much in previous years. I see this accountability as a great opportunity to support our students, and we need to act now to improve the success of Black students. I am fully aware of how vital Compton College is to our community, offering educational opportunities along with economic and social mobility. That’s why I make no apologies for my work toward ensuring the success of Black students. This student group is already underrepresented in higher education, so it is worrisome to see these same students overrepresented in enrollment decline. Bringing in alumni – and not just Black alumni – as activists and changemakers is one way we can help Black students achieve.
In closing, in fall 2019, I led an accreditation visit to the college program in San Quentin State Prison and met individual students who are from the neighborhood where I grew up. People from our community. They were surprised to see a young Black male as a community college president. And I don’t take that lightly. While I am in this position, I need to use this platform as a college activist, not just a college president, to make sure education is accessible to all. I personally understand the struggles many in my community face to obtain an education. I recognize the variety of obstacles in their way, and that’s what we will talk about next week – examining how we can remove some of those barriers that are keeping Black students from accessing and completing their education.