Men of color buoyed by their Stritch family through My Brother’s Keeper

By Sara Woelfel
Photos by Troy Freund, ’95

The statistics and research don’t lie.

Read the reports, crunch the numbers, examine the percentages, review the charts, and the conclusion remains the same: the odds are against men of color who hope to earn a college degree.

Now, naysayers might doubt the magnitude of the barriers men of color face. Yet, plenty of hard evidence backed by gut-wrenching personal testi­monials reveal that low teacher expectations, lack of institutional support, social isolation, misdi­agnosed learning disabilities, gaps in the cultural competence of authority figures, inadequate financ­ing, and a lack of social capital gradually sours boys to the whole idea of school, sometimes starting as early as kindergarten.

“Even if they make it through high school to get to college, they bring all that baggage,” said Dr. Darnell Bradley, associate professor of education for the leadership doctorate. “And that doesn’t necessarily go away when they get to college campuses, because they will still encounter people with gaps in their cultural competence who will look at this group of students and see a ‘them.’ And that’s how they play out their interactions with them, as a ‘them.’”

But there is hope. Men like Teon Austin are living proof. He graduated from one of the roughest high schools in Milwaukee, but he went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is currently working toward his doctorate. And now, as Stritch’s assistant dean of students for diversity initiatives, he’s at the heart of My Brother’s Keeper, a new initia­tive that is creating a community of undergraduate men of color of all ages who share a determination to grind out their own success stories, beat the odds and prove that statistics do not dictate reality.

“Stritch’s program replicates national programs that seek to remove barriers for higher education for men of color in addition to enhancing the college experience,” Austin said. “My Brother’s Keeper will provide social, cultural and academic enhancement to their experience, all while building a capacity for leadership.”

Throughout their time at Stritch, the men will gather for events and speakers, engage in group service projects, have access to additional support re­sources, and be mentored by men of color in their anticipated career fields.

“If you can talk to someone in the industry, espe­cially someone who looks like you, and you can get them vested in your success, that’ll help make your journey smoother toward a degree,” Austin said. “And, it will make it feel more relevant and tangible because you can see what’s at the end of the road through someone who’s experienced it.”

While the program is underway, key pieces remain in development. Even though Austin, Bradley and Dr. Corey Thompson, ’07, assistant professor of urban education, designed the program based on research and their collective expertise they intend to continually refine it by blending proven methods with the specific needs of this first group of participants.

“Especially with this population, it’s hard for a bunch of us to sit in an office and decide we’re go­ing to do these five things and it’s going to make a huge impact,” Austin said. “You don’t really know how it’s going to resonate with the population. So, to be able to pair what they tell us they need with the resources and scholarly studies at hand, and then use that to inform what the program is going to look like, we hope that will have a favorable ef­fect on their retention and persistence."

The combined expertise Austin, Bradley and Thompson bring to the table is secondary only to the passion and personal investment they each feel as professionals, as men of color and as fathers of their own sons.

What Austin finds important to emphasize, especially to people not immersed in the research, studies and data surrounding this issue, is that the educational struggles experienced by men of color can just as easily affect academically gifted students from middle-income families as men who earned average grades in high school, may be the first in their families to graduate or come from broken homes.

“Unfortunately, in our world, you could be a stel­lar student but if you’re black at a majority white university, you may not matriculate,” Austin said. “That’s why I get frustrated when people talk about programs like this not being needed or not being needed for students who are achieving above a certain level. There are more obstacles to graduation than just being able to understand the coursework.”

This concept and his own life experiences pro­vided the impetus for Austin’s doctoral disserta­tion that he’s currently writing: “Examining How Noncognitive Factors Impact College Retention for African American Male Students.” When he enrolled in Stritch's Doctorate in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service, Austin chose this topic never imagining that the research actually would lead him to initiate the conversation about My Brother’s Keeper at Stritch.

Months in the making, the program kicked off in early fall 2016, with double the interest Austin, Bradley and Thompson anticipated. The willingness of nearly 60 men to come for­ward to join a brand-new group is a positive step for each of them. Studies show men are most successful when they make efforts to engage not just in the academic, but also in the social realm of college.

“If students can make social-academic integration happen, they are more likely to finish their degrees,” said Bradley, who served as director of multicultural affairs at Northern Michigan University and cites the research of noted experts Shaun Harper and Vincent Tinto as key in grasping the complexities of the plight of men of color in higher education. “They are not just able to manage their work, but they also build relationships with faculty and staff. Also, the social piece involves finding a niche, a group to hang out with and belong to. If these factors work out, a student is more likely to stay.”

For some students, simply applying to and enrolling in a University represents a victory in their journey. If they are first-generation students, they may rely on pre-college preparation programs—like Boys & Girls Club or TRIO—first to help them envision college as a possibility and then to educate them on how to get there. My Brother’s Keeper continues that vein of sup­port and provides a sense of belonging and modes of acclimation for students who otherwise feel like they are out of their element.

“All students—even those at the top of their class—deal with imposter syndrome to some degree,” Bradley said. “They think, ‘Everybody here is smarter than I am. I’m not good enough to be here.’”

FROM SPECIAL ED TO DOCTORAL ED: Success flourishes when oppression ends

Dr. Shawn Anthony Robinson, ’15, graduated high school with a lot of anger, the echoes of his teachers’ harsh words, and a third-grade reading level. But he also graduated with grit, persis­tence, self-efficacy, his mother’s respect and the resolve to prove his naysayers wrong.

His first 12 years of school found him struggling in special education classrooms, totally unaware of his undiagnosed dyslexia and using behavioral defense mechanisms to mask his reading problems. His next 18 years of school—when he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees—found him now aware not only of his dyslexia and how to cope with it, but also of his giftedness for leadership, initiative and fearlessness.

Today, Robinson is a college instructor and a published au­thor whose research that started with his Stritch doctoral dissertation—“Navigating the academic systems through three perspectives: A twice exceptional black male with dyslexia. An auto-ethnographic account”—garnered the attention of NBC News and of a White House panel, convened by the director of the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

“When I was in high school, they told my mother that I wouldn’t be anything, that college was not even an option,” Robinson said. “And now they just recognized me as an outstanding alum­nus. My picture will be in the school Hall of Honor forever.”

Previous recipients of that award, whose photos will hang along­side Robinson’s, include an impressive list of notables such as for­mer U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, award-winning entertainer Ann-Margret, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Emmy-nominated actor Rainn Wilson, and a host of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and military leaders. In October 2016, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh also recognized Robinson as an outstanding alumnus.

He credits a high school teacher who didn’t give up on him and encouraged him to become a Special Olympics peer mentor with saving him from the destructive path he followed in high school. His leadership with the organization earned him several awards— a college scholarship, Citizen of the Year, and Youth Volunteer of the Year. Twenty years after being introduced to the program, he continues to be a coach and champion for Special Olympics.

In addition, two college professors mentored him, taught him to read through Project Success at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh, and continued to go to extraordinary lengths to support him as he pursued his graduate degrees. Those special people, his family and his never-give-up attitude led him to the life he lives today.

“You have to be hungry,” Robinson said. “Keep knocking on doors and, if it doesn’t open, move on to the next one. Everyone gets dis­couraged, everyone has fears, but that’s part of life. It only matters how you respond to them.”

Robinson’s experience supports what so much of the research sug­gests is necessary for men of color to break out of the limits society and systems set for them—academic support, social connections, leadership development, service opportunities, and career men­tors. Tuning out the voices that said it wasn’t possible, Robinson believed in himself and dug deep again and again to build a life that makes him proud.

As his story continues to unfold, Robinson is determined to be­come a fierce educational advocate for his two-year-old son, who is part of the next generation of men.

“I won’t allow any school system to pigeonhole my son. If they do, I will be right there.”