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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Program provides support for minority male students at Carolina

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Michael Morrison, left, and Sam Marsan, right, visit with Ada Wilson, center, a director at CMSP. Morrison and Marsan said Wilson’s support was helping them succeed at Carolina.

Last spring, Samuel Marsan didn’t get any A’s.

It wasn’t like him. The psychology major, research assistant and honors student began to wonder if coming to Carolina was such a good idea.

“I honestly thought I wouldn’t graduate,” Marsan said.

Far from his family in Cuba, he grappled with economic difficulties and his identity. Amid the accepting climate of the University, he finally felt free to talk about his sexual orientation. He found himself struggling emotionally, which led to trouble concentrating in class.

His grades began to slide. But, through the Carolina Millennial Scholars Program (CMSP), he had a support system to get him back on track.

As part of a small group of minority male students making up the first cohort of CMSP scholars, Marsan had access to academic and networking opportunities, seminars on finances and success-seeking behaviors, and connections to researchers who shared his interested in substance abuse and organizational psychology.

Equally as important, he had a net.

He had mentors to look up to and a group of “brothers” to lean on, who accepted him without question though he had worried initially that he’d be alienated. He had Ada Wilson, director of Inclusive Student Excellence and one of the directors of CMSP, who helped him apply for jobs so he could stay at Carolina. Soon, he was focused in the lab and investigating graduate programs.

“It’s not only about the research experience and academic opportunities this program has given me, it’s also about support and community. It became a family, and through that, I was able to focus on school again,” Marsan said.

Tackling a troubling trend

CMSP is aimed at engaging, recruiting, retaining and supporting African-American, American Indian and Latino males through graduation and beyond. Scholars apply to and enter the two-year program their first year at Carolina, and around 15 are accepted.

A 2010 retention study from Carolina’s Office of Undergraduate Retention showed UNC’s four-year graduation rate was 49.2 percent for black males, in contrast to a 70.8 percent graduation rate for white males. Retention rates of American Indian and Latino males were also low.

“These are exceptional young men who enter our university with strong records of academic performance and co-curricular engagement,” said Taffye Benson Clayton, vice provost and chief diversity officer. “The question is what happens when they arrive here, and this is a question that is being asked all over the nation.”

Marco Barker, senior director at UNC Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, added: “We know it’s not their deficit. If they got in here, they are outstanding students. Our efforts had to address the unique racial, ethnic and gender nuances of males of color on a university campus.”

Barker, who heads CMSP along with Wilson and Josmell Perez, coordinator for multicultural programs and the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative, said those nuances come to light in the different ways people approach college life. For instance, men are less likely to ask for help, which may keep them from accessing the abundant resources for academic success that Carolina has to offer all students.

“We know that, culturally, many men are taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness or vulnerability. We have to teach help-seeking behaviors and encourage young men to identify a problem, find solutions and start the steps,” Barker said.

National research and the work of other campus offices committed to these issues showed that one key to the success of minority males was the opportunity to be engaged in high-impact experiences, which CMSP provides. CMSP scholars are connected to study abroad, undergraduate research opportunities and summer fellowships.

Those experiences help students become more engaged, Barker said. “Getting connected helps them increase their confidence so they are much more proactive and self-aware about some of the resources and tools needed to be successful.”

Michael Morrison, now a sophomore scholar, applied to CMSP because he wanted a group who could help him focus on success. During his first year at Carolina, CMSP exposed him to learning and testing techniques that he credits with giving him a steady start.

“One of the great things about this campus is that there are so many resources. But because there are so many, it can be easy to overlook them,” Morrison said. “Even though we’re a small group, we’re powerful, and we’re a great support system for one another.”

A shared concern

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Roxana Perez-Mendez serves as a faculty mentor for students in CMSP.

Sharon James was aware of the stereotypes attached to minority males, and she’d seen her students react to the misconceptions.

“Some were afraid to ask questions – what happens if they raise their hand and say they don’t understand something? Would someone say they didn’t belong here?

We know that there’s no race, class or gender that cannot succeed academically,” said James, associate professor of classics.

“I emailed Marco and said, ‘If you want a middle-aged white lady classics professor for this, I’m happy to help.’”

Last year, James became a mentor for CMSP scholar Anthony Gore, a junior transfer student who sought out the program to avoid feeling like he was “under the microscope.” The two meet regularly for lunch or coffee, or during James’ office hours, and talk about classes, tips for writing papers and life.

“This is the line you hear over and over: ‘I am used to being the only man of color in my upper-level classes at high school,’” Gore said. “So, you get used to it and expect it. But you also feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

In CMSP, Gore found a community where he could speak openly about issues of racism and what it would take to succeed. He can open up to James – but what has meant even more, he said, is that she opens up to him.

“It’s actually good that we’re from different worlds,” he said. “She gives me this complete other perspective. She talks about how important education was to her family growing up, and she grew up in a university background. It’s been important for me to hear that side of things.”

Reports of low-retention rates for minority males at Carolina also troubled Roxana Perez-Mendez, an assistant professor of art, and serving as a CMSP mentor has given her a way to be part of the solution. In her own undergraduate experience, Perez-Mendez had seen how easy it could be to fall through the cracks.

“Making connections makes the expanse of a university feel smaller, more accessible and attainable,” she said. “There are people who these students can go to and see they are not necessarily alone.”

In addition to official faculty mentors, Barker maintains a list of faculty and staff who’ve expressed interest in being called on when there’s a need.

A pipeline of progress

Marsan wants one day to be recognized for his contributions to science and his work in substance abuse. Within that, he wants to influence others in the minority community. He’s already started as a mentor to a first-year CMSP scholar from Michigan.

“I know how important it was that someone cared about how I was doing, so I check on him regularly,” Marsan said. “He’s doing awesome!”

Morrison wants his CMSP connection to stay strong long after he leaves Carolina. “I look forward to giving back after everything they’ve given to me,” he said.

Multiple campus groups in addition to CMSP are helping the Carolina community learn more about the factors that contribute to the success of minority males, Clayton said. “We must continue to create and sustain an environment where all students have the opportunity to thrive.”

CMSP helps students at Carolina thrive now, Barker said. What’s more, it acts as a pipeline to solve larger issues of race and gender.

“We really want to see that pipeline of support go from K–12 to alumni,” Barker said. “I dream of the day when we’re able to see the student we reached as a 6th-grader stay in touch, come to Carolina and join CMSP. And when that student graduates, my hope is he’ll come back to talk to the scholars.”

That hope helps Gore focus less on the disconcerting low enrollment of young black men like himself.

“Now, I look toward the pipeline that Dr. Barker talks about: taking the young men at UNC now and having them impact high school and elementary school kids,” he said.

“I know what I need to do to help others like me: be around, be present.”

See cmsp.unc.edu for more information about CMSP.