Recently, two young men from East Bakersfield arrived at Bakersfield College. These men grew up near Mt. Vernon and Niles, an area close to campus that is more known for gang violence and poverty than sending young men to college. On their first day on campus, they met a host of staff ready to assist them with registration, financial aid and otherwise getting fully acclimated to campus life. Their student ID cards were particularly meaningful as they held them up to the camera for a photograph. I used this picture during our spring semester opening day when I was asked to speak about the importance of mentoring African-American students.

The story of these two young men is not unique. It echoes the experiences of other young black men and women situating themselves within a culture of higher education. Prior to arriving at Bakersfield College, our young black male and female students come from high schools that don’t always prepare them well for college. Many black students who I deal with do not meet traditional standards of excellence. However, our goal at BC is to assist these students in finding their own personal excellence. In attempting to transform this educational disparity, our strategy does not lower the bar for excellence but raises it.

This is why we are encouraging our students to enroll in 15 credit units per semester and 30 units annually. This is why we are pushing students to complete college-level math and English during their first year. Working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we set high expectations that they did not necessarily receive at the secondary level, or possibly even at home. We set high expectations along with providing a high level of support that comes in handy when students face failures.

When pushed to their limit, will some students fail? Yes. But when our students fail, we do not see failure as a loss; failure is simply a part of their journey toward success. It is only natural for students to fail sometimes. Nature fails all the time. Flowers do not always bloom, but eventually, if we plant enough seeds, we end up with a garden. It is only unnatural to accept failure as a final destination.

When we look at the first time African-American students at BC across the last three academic years, we see that the percentage of students who complete college-level English and those completing both college-level English and math has risen significantly each year. This trend is happening even as the number of first-time black students increases annually.

To be effective in accomplishing equitable transformation, we address issues beyond what we see in the classroom. Scholastic results, or lack thereof, are rooted in issues students face outside the classroom. At BC, we address these issues in our African American Mentoring Program (AAMP) meetings during a component we call “Real Talk.” Real Talk is the facilitation of honest conversations, “Truth-telling conversations.” Sometimes that involves unpacking very complex issues such as masculinity. What does it really mean to be a man? What does it really mean to be a black man?

We break down stereotypes of masculinity and examine how society perpetuates and internalizes them. Sometimes we focus on simpler matters, such as sexually transmitted diseases or study skills. No matter the topic, Real Talk engages students and facilitates a demonstrable depth in their thinking. It helps students with their ability to present an oral argument. It also helps build a greater awareness of self-identity. We aim to show students that they can produce knowledge.

Many students have the impression that in order to be a scholar, you cannot also be cool, or you cannot also be black. Many students believe that they would have to give up what makes them who they are in order to be good students. We instead utilize culture and treat it as an asset.

This is how we are transforming lives at Bakersfield College, one student at a time. In the words of the great civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, we “lift every voice and sing” as our students both succeed and fail upward.

Julian West is an educational adviser in the African-American Mentor Program at Bakersfield College. The opinions expressed are his own.

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