UAB’s black male retention program helping students beat the odds

UAB’s BMEN program helps black male students graduate at a rate 20 percent above the national average.

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Michael Brooks, standing, leads UAB’s effort to help black male students succeed in college.

The state of black men on college campuses is in critical condition, says Michael Brooks, Ph.D., associate professor of counselor education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education.

Nearly two million students will graduate from college this year, according to the National Association of College and Employers. “But far too few of them will be African-American males,” says Brooks. Just 34 percent of black men who enter college will graduate, he says.

“Other groups are excelling while black men are declining.”

Brooks leads UAB’s effort to help black male students succeed in college. So far, the Blazer Male Excellence Network, founded in 2007, has seen 57 percent of its participants graduate. But Brooks isn’t satisfied with those numbers; he has his sights set on reaching 80 percent.

Financial need, subpar academic preparation, family obligations, lack of focus and the inability to connect with students of a similar culture cause many to give up, Brooks writes in a paper that was published in October 2012 in the Journal of African American Studies.

In “Are African-American Male Undergraduate Retention Programs Successful? An Evaluation of an Undergraduate Male Retention Program,” Brooks and his co-authors examine efforts nationwide to increase the number of black male graduates. Their research revealed that programs that allow students to “affirm their cultural identities” and provide them with mentorship increase their chances of staying enrolled.

“You have to want it. If it was easy, then everyone would have it.”

“BMEN taught me how an African-American man should act,” says Dominique Tull, a 20-year-old psychology major and Nashville native.

Tull’s parents are West Indian and grew up poor, he says. They stressed to him the importance going to college — that education would be his breakthrough for a better future.

BMEN helped show him the way, he says. Tull was able to connect with an upperclassman who had walked the path he was heading down. He also had open access to Brooks and other African-American faculty members at UAB who gave him lasting advice.

“It has helped to shape my college experience,” he says.

BMEN got its start in 2007 with 21 students. Fifteen of those original members have graduated, and the six remaining will receive their degrees soon. Today, there are 230 students enrolled in the BMEN program, including nearly 60 freshmen.

The program accepts students of any ethnicity, but all incoming freshmen who self-identify as black males are contacted by the program directly, Brooks says. Participants attend a weekly seminar course and get a mentor. Brooks and his colleagues teach from Let’s BMEN: How to Successfully Navigate the College Experience, a book he edited.

“We tell them that talent and charisma are not enough,” Brooks says. “They have to exhibit the ‘Five Wells,’ a concept developed by Dr. Robert Franklin, president of Morehouse College: be well-spoken, well-read, well-dressed, well-traveled and well-balanced.”

On a recent Friday, scores of black male students — dressed in polo shirts, khakis and jeans — filed into room 230 in the School of Education. BMEN coordinator Christopher Jones stood at the front and asked: “Do you value your education the same way you value hip hop, sports or chasing women?”

The program accepts students of any ethnicity, but all incoming freshmen who self-identify as black males are contacted by the program directly. Participants attend a weekly seminar course and get a mentor. Brooks and his colleagues teach from Let’s BMEN: How to Successfully Navigate the College Experience.

One student chimed in: “Sometimes I say I am going to put my education first, then I do that for a few weeks and then I say, ‘Bump that.’”

Jones gives him tips on how to stay focused. He tells the young man to eliminate distractions such as mindless TV shows and video games. He also advises him to regularly ask himself what he hopes to gain from a degree.

Then the men talk about priorities and vent about calculus, jump shots, note taking and women.

“Women graduate at much higher rates than guys,” Jones told them. “Black women don’t have suitable partners. You are doing them a favor by getting your degree.”

Many agree.

“You have to want it,” one student says, appearing to be thinking aloud. “If it was easy, then everyone would have it.”

Brooks can relate.

“I didn’t grow up seeing many black men with Ph.D.s,” he says.

Brooks was the only black man in his master’s counseling program and the only African-American during his first year in his Ph.D. program, he says. In July 2010, Brooks became the first black male in his department — and the second in the School of Education — to receive tenure.

“My professors saw something in me,” Brooks says, “and they pushed me.”

Today, he is trying to pay it forward.

Tull says he’s not stopping until he gets his degree. He wants to be a doctor. Brooks says he will be there right beside him with encouragement — and a nudge if he has to — along the way.

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