What does it mean to support your community? As individuals, it’s everything from clearing the snow off your sidewalk to volunteering at your child’s school. For the University of Baltimore, it not only means that our students, faculty and staff are out in neighborhoods across the city, doing all kinds of work – it means that we recognize Baltimore for what it truly is: a gathering of people, a past, present and future, a true community of individuals who are worthy of our time and our best efforts as educators, mentors and leaders. This community insists that we be a part of it – because we are.
UB began admitting first-time full-time freshmen students in the Fall of 2007, and since that time the institution has monitored student success through a number of measures. Two of these key student success measures are year-to-year retention rates, and 6-year graduation rates. In 2014, while reviewing this data we discovered some alarming trends regarding the persistence of Black men beyond the second year, as well as graduation rate disparities for the same population.
Instead of placing the onus on the student, and equating these disparities in retention and graduation rates to unchangeable issues that had more to do with where students lived, attended school, and their family backgrounds, we took a more institutionally responsible approach. As a university that has primarily served white students in thepast, UB took on the effort of creating a more inclusive, encouraging, supportive academic environment for young men of color to learn and thrive in. We took on the task of changing the way we do things at the institution, with a specific focus on meeting our students where they are, and in the process we began to challenge how we had traditionally engaged (or failed to) with our men of color on campus.
The Brotherhood, Mentorship, Achievement, Leadership, and Enterprise Academy (B.M.A.L.E. Academy) is the largest and most visible example of the work that is being done in this area with men of color. BMALE employs an enhanced academic support structure by utilizing intense mentoring, peer cohort support structures, and academic skills building interventions coupled with opportunities to engage with the academic world outside of the traditional classroom setting. The BMALE Academy moves UB closer to being a campus environment that supports, embraces and engages undergraduate men of color at the institution. Faculty are being provided with development and engagement opportunities, partnerships with academic advising and tutoring services are being built, and BMALE staff actively participates in the campus climate assessment activities with specific attention on diversity, inclusion, and support of underrepresented populations.
During the program’s first year the number of student participants grew from 15 to 45, with male students of color self-selecting into the program based on a strong desire to be mentored and receive additional academic guidance. The students come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, religions, and socio-economic levels, with a majority of the young men having attended Baltimore City Public Schools. The current students in the program include two who are currently interning in Annapolis at the state capital, one who was named Baltimore City’s first Youth Poet Laureate, and a soon-to-be graduate who will enter the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law in the fall.
In addition to its focus on academics, and juxtaposed against the backdrop of social angst regarding issues like education and law enforcement, the program has also discovered its power as a conduit to helping students discuss, understand, and engage in current events on both a local and national level. Over the past year our young men have engaged the campus and community in an ongoing series of town halls that have created a space for community activists, scholars, clergy, policy makers, and law enforcement to engage issues like police brutality and the school to prison pipeline on a more solutions-oriented level. Students have attended the Black Male Development Symposium hosted at Arcadia University, and were also invited to the White House to participate in a Youth Policy Hack-a-thon by the deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
In a city that is increasingly concerned about the plight of, and options available to men of color, we have created a program that provides support and guidance even in times of unrest and high emotion. As an institution, we seek to provide the absolute best services to our students in order to help them attain success. Currently, the program is staffed by one full-time professional who is assisted by a dedicated group of volunteers. It has been funded by a small (but extremely helpful) internal start-up grant that was provided by the University of Baltimore Foundation through their Fund for Excellence Program.
This is how UB defines community: We are a university in the city, of the city and for the city. As Baltimore changes, and as our hopes rise with that change, UB will be there to support the people who create community in Baltimore.
Sunni L. Solomon II is the founding director of the institution’s BMALE Academy. In addition to his current role at UB, he is also a full-time doctoral student at Morgan State University in the Higher Education Administration program. His research interests include mentoring, fraternal organization dynamics, and support of minority serving institutions.