Mentoring for College Access: Are Youth of Color POW’s in PWI’s? (Prisoners of War in Predominately White Institutions)

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I’ve been running a college access centered mentoring program since 2007. Which means that since that time I have actively cultivated mentoring relationships with high school youth and acted as an institutional agent with the intention of helping low-income, first generation, and young people of color gain access to higher education institutions. To this end, myself and the mentors within my organization have sent 98% of over 300 young people to college. Of those we have sent, 100% of those have stayed in until graduation or are still in college working towards their degree. In our own way, we have been working to slowly plug away at the higher education access gap, especially the gap that exists in the Inland Empire of Southern California. I remain proud of that work, but in the last few years I have begun, more and more, to question the meaning of this work. I believe in the promise of solid education for people of color. I believe that education, at least as our system currently exists, is an essential stop on the route to closing the wage gap, desegregating neighborhoods, and increasing numbers of people of color in professional careers. More importantly, I believe that a true and critical education can be the epicenter of collective consciousness.

However, in the wake of a continuing struggle to gain equity; i.e. Black Lives Matter and Black Spring, we must look closely at all of the issues and we must alter our trajectories. This means taking a second look at what we are getting in higher education. On any given day you can stroll through social media feeds or watch the news to find story after story of students of color enrolled at predominantly white institutions dealing with both covert and overt racism and prejudice. From black face parties, and racist chants to lack of institutional representation among students, faculty and staff, it seems our students of color are often trapped in a sort of war. A war in which their complete person; mind, body and soul, is under continual attack. Whiteness curriculum dominating the educational landscape, micro aggressions plaguing the daily experience, and a constant wrestling with double consciousness, constitute continuous dangers in a seemingly innocuous space.

Our young people are told by parents, schools and mentors to go to college to improve their current circumstances and so they work hard and many of them do go on to a college or university, but only to be confronted by other forms of the same issues. So if you’re like some of the youth I mentor, you are a first generation Black student who works to gain access to a top tier university. Your mentor helps you through the college application process, writes you an excellent letter of recommendation, even helps you access fee waivers so that you can afford to apply. You are excited to receive your acceptance letter and after sharing it with your parents you call your mentor to share the news with them. You feel as if you have waited your entire life for this opportunity and even though tuition is going to be a struggle you and your family are willing to make the sacrifices required to achieve this age old dream. And then you arrive…

While you are there working toward your degree you might experience a racist greek organization chant that offends your person, you might witness or hear about a black face party, you might have campus security called on you while you are waiting to see your advisor, you might attempt to contact a professor for additional help or mentoring and be ignored or rejected, you might have students, staff or faculty ask if you are attending on a sports scholarship or if you gained entrance as a result of affirmative action, you might not ever have a professor of color teaching one of your courses, you might be harassed by campus police while crossing a street. You might not ever get to take a course in which your ethnicity is at the center, it is unlikely that many of your required texts will be written by someone who looks like you, and you might find that you have to tread carefully in the neighborhoods surrounding your school because you might not be easily recognized as a student. All of this while you are paying an often hefty tuition.

Again, we must ask ourselves what are we mentoring toward? What are we aiding young people in gaining access to? When we ask our youth to aspire for a higher education we are often asking them to continue fighting a war they have already been fighting for quite some time. I’ve got no argument with teaching youth to struggle, but to struggle with no progress makes very little sense. Should mentors be encouraging students of color to attend PWI’s if they know that the road ahead is filled with the aforementioned issues? What can mentors do to help build the resilience youth will likely need to survive their interactions with PWI’s? How can mentors encourage higher education attendance and also support proteges in making vital changes at their institutions? Why should we encourage them to pay the very high cost to be attacked?

Mentors can not continue to focus on college access without asking these critical questions. Stakes are high, the cost of college is rising and our youth have become prisoners of war in this ongoing battle to increase diversity in higher education.

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