Many of them came to Cal Poly Pomona as first-generation college students, not knowing a soul and uncertain about how to navigate the intricacies of a large university.
Just two quarters in, Latino and African American first-year male students participating in a new program called Project SUCCESS have mentors, friends and brothers to help guide them and also give them a better sense of self.
Jose Flores, a junior majoring in kinesiology, always has been the type of person to push for success despite obstacles that included dyslexia and a speech impediment. When he transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in the fall and heard about the program, he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“I always want to improve myself,” Flores says. “In the Hispanic culture, we are so afraid to ask for help. Men have what we call machismo. In the program, many of us don’t like how we are, and we want to change that. This program helps us to ask for help.”
The idea to launch Project SUCCESS dates to 2014, says Byron Howlett, associate vice president and dean of students.
Campus data from 2010 showed that African American and Latino male students tended to have the lowest persistence rates from year one to year two. African American male students persisted at a rate of 77.8 percent in the first year and 75 percent in year two. Latino male students had a persistence rate of 86.4 percent in year one and 63.6 percent in year two.
The persistence gap was 12.3 percent lower from year one to year two for African Americans, compared to Caucasian students, and the gap for Latino students was 22.8 percent. Latino and African American male students also tended to graduate at lower rates compared to their peers, Howlett says.
“The ultimate aim and focus of Project SUCCESS is directly aligned with the chancellor’s office and President Coley’s vision to eliminate the achievement/opportunity gap by the year 2025,” he says. “Also, a lot of students here have to take care of parents and other family members. Many are first-generation, have responsibilities back home, so they find CPP extra challenging.”
In fall 2014, Howlett met with Tashiana Bryant, the coordinator of the African American Student Center, Lorena Marquez, the former coordinator of the Cesar E. Chavez Center for Higher Education, and La’Keshia Beard, the former acting director for the Office of Student Life & Cultural Centers, to examine ways to help eliminate the achievement/opportunity gap.
Project SUCCESS was launched as a pilot program in the 2015-16 academic year with initial funding of $10,000 from a Kellogg Legacy grant. In spring 2016, the program received an additional $10,000 in support from Academic Affairs for programs specifically targeting student success initiatives.
Howlett says to help support the program, which is now offered as a two-unit course through the Department of Ethnic & Women’s Studies, they looked for graduate programs in the region where they could find a master’s degree graduate student to help further develop Project SUCCESS.
Howlett says he met the program’s graduate student, Tim Alexander, a higher education program master’s degree student at Cal State Fullerton, at a career fair where he was recruiting graduate assistants.
“As soon as Tim walked away from the table, I and the undergraduate student with me, both looked at each other and said, ‘That’s our guy,’” Howlett says.
Alexander helped put together the curriculum and processes for Project SUCCESS and assisted in the recruitment of the 59 students enrolled in the program.
“There are certain student populations who need additional help,” he says. “If I can help students navigate through the often challenging institutional and educational barriers, I can sleep well at night.”
Besides meeting monthly, the participants in the program are placed into 12 smaller kin groups that meet once every other week and are facilitated by faculty or staff volunteers. The next step is to get Cal Poly Pomona alumni volunteers involved. Some seniors and juniors in the program serve as mentors.
Francisco Martinez, a senior business management student who works as an ambassador in the Dean of Students office, says that assisting with the program has helped him develop a passion for higher education. He serves as a program intern, which involves weekly meetings to discuss curriculum and plan speakers. He also helps with three kin groups. For many students new to campus, especially first-generation students, it can be a culture shock, Martinez says.
“They are forced to be responsible,” he says. “That’s very overwhelming. Not having someone to help you navigate things can be very difficult. Without the program, they are in the blank.”
During a meeting of Project SUCCESS in the fall quarter, the students got into groups based on their “true colors.” Each color represented personal traits they possessed. Those in the green group considered themselves independent idea people. The orange group represented risk takers. The gold group was composed of detail-oriented planners. The blue group consisted of romantic optimists.
The exercise was designed to teach the students to see their common traits as assets rather than deficits.
Alex Ojelabi, a junior majoring in biology, says Project SUCCESS teaches participants that while there is an achievement gap that disproportionately affects African-American and Latino male students, it’s not an obstacle that can’t be overcome when the same opportunities are available to everyone.
Ojelabi, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria in 1991 and are both educators, says he has discovered a lot about himself in the program.
“I am a very inclusive person,” he says. “I am very task-oriented. I don’t like to be stagnant. I get bored easily, so I always need something to do.”