More than a dozen area professionals and community leaders came together to provide career advice, guidance and academic support to local minority students during the third annual Minority Male Initiative Conference, held Feb. 17 at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
The conference, titled “Setting Priorities for Career Success,” was co-hosted by Brookdale and the Monmouth/Ocean County Pan Hellenic Council and sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health and Brookdale’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program.
More than 170 high school juniors, seniors and Brookdale students were offered a unique opportunity to network with area professionals, apply for dedicated scholarships and learn how to pursue their professional dreams in one of four different career clusters: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); health care and health science; business and social science; and communications media.
Schools represented included Academy Charter High School in Lake Como, Freehold High School, Long Branch High School, Monmouth Regional High School, Manalapan High School, Neptune High School and Red Bank Regional High School.
The day-long conference began with a series of talks by multiple guest speakers, including Brookdale vice president for learning Dr. Matthew Reed; New Jersey Council of County Colleges communications director Jacob Farbman; Pan-Hellenic council president Kenneth Morgan; assistant Brookdale professor Fidel Wilson; and keynote speaker Dr. Brian Roper.
Roper, an accomplished physician from Neptune, told a “parable” of two local students who had done well in school and gone on to study at prestigious universities. One student, Roper said, was unable to break away from the connections and temptations of his hometown and continued to dabble in the use and sale of drugs, even after earning a professorship.
“He thought he was smarter than the system,” Roper said, revealing that the student was ultimately shot and killed in Newark at the age of 30. “You can read about his story in a bestselling book, titled ‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.'”
The second student, Roper said, partied and got involved with fraternity life in college, which caused him to fall behind in class and ultimately withdraw from school. Returning home, the student enrolled in a local college and decided to refocus on his goals.
“There are no books written about him, but I can tell you a lot about him. Because I am him,” said Roper. “I realized my personal behavior can actually derail my professional outcome. If you are doing things that can derail you, you better believe sooner or later it’s going to catch up with you… I had wanted to be a doctor since I was five years old, and I was finally able to realize that dream by staying focused on it, staying dedicated and doing the right things.”
The students were then broken up into groups based on their interests and invited to dedicated career workshops hosted by a wide range of local professionals and educators.
The STEM workshop, facilitated by Meridian Health cultural diversity manager Darryl Hughes, was hosted by AT&T engineer Garfield Dunn and area STEM professional Zakaris Lemelle. The health science workshop, facilitated by Beau Younkers, was hosted by Leonard Thomas, a registered nurse with Hackensack Meridian Health, and Dr. David Kountz, co-chief academic officer for Hackensack Meridian.
The business and social science workshop, facilitated by Brookdale business professor Phyllis Shafer, was hosted by Brookdale police sergeant Risheem Whitten and Red Bank-based communications professional Gilda Rogers. The communications media workshop, facilitated by associate Brookdale communications professor Chad Anderson, was hosted by Lynette King-Davis, senior director of marketing for Hackensack Meridian, and associate speech professor Martin McDermott.
“We learned a lot about persistence, about making connections and developing more than one skill,” said Long Branch High School junior Kaymar Mimes, who attended the business and social science workshop.
“We also learned that it’s important to remember that one’s success is not measured by how much money they make. Success is living life in the manner that one chooses.”
Following the workshops, students were treated to a free catered lunch and a prize raffle, with more than 70 lucky attendees receiving a t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt or a power-bank digital charger. Students were also invited to apply for one of seven Brookdale scholarships offered exclusively to conference participants as part of the MinorityMale Initiative. Since its inception in 2015, the initiative has offered 12 college scholarships totaling more than $5,000 to local high school graduates and Brookdale students.
During lunch conference attendees were also treated to a guest lecture by Comcast IT supervisor Kina Steele-Crawford and regional information technology director Reginald Anderson, who provided the students with a number of practical tips for interviewing, networking, applying for internships and setting a “career GPS” while still in school.
“Just as a car GPS will give you an alternate route to your destination if something is in your way, you need to do the same,” Anderson said. “You are going to have a lot of alternate paths. Things are not going to be very easy in life for you, but you are going to have to put the work in.”
Like many of the day’s speakers, Anderson and Steele-Crawford provided students with their personal contact information and encouraged them to reach out for assistance in the future.
The Minority Male Initiative, spearheaded by a volunteer committee of Brookdale employees and Pan-Hellenic council members, is designed to address a growing gap in college completion rates and career success between minority male students and their white counterparts.
“Each year more and more male students of color are enrolling in college, yet they still face enormous challenges,” said Lisa Savage, student services associate at Brookdale and a co-organizer of the conference. “We want to provide a comprehensive system of support and encouragement as students navigate their educational journey and move on to a successful career.”
While the percentage of all students earning bachelor’s degrees increased significantly over the last 20 years, the gap between white students and black or Latino students has grown as well, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Between 1995 and 2015, the percentage of white 25- to 29-year-olds who had earned a bachelor’s degree rose from 29 to 43 percent. Among African Americans in the same age group, the percentage holding bachelor’s degrees increased by only six points, from 15 to 21 percent, while for Hispanics it rose only seven points, from 9 to 16 percent.
According to a 2012 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 34 percent of black males who enrolled as full-time college students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, as opposed to 59 percent of white males. According to a May 2014 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 12.4 percent of black college graduates age 22 to 27 were unemployed, more than double the unemployment rate for all college graduates in the same age group.
For committee members like Wayne Boatwright, Meridian’s vice president for cultural diversity, the initiative is an important tool in showing local students that they have the ability to achieve great things and providing them with the support they need to get started.
“We didn’t have access to things like this,” said Boatwright, addressing the students at the conclusion of the conference. “When we stepped into those careers and industries and we were different, we had to take all of the stuff that came with that. We had to take the embarrassment, the feeling of being disenfranchised, all of that. So don’t pass up this opportunity. Really. Don’t pass it up.”
According to Neptune High School junior and aspiring psychology major Malachi Lawrence, the conference was an eye-opening experience and a valuable opportunity to speak candidly with working professionals.
“It’s very encouraging, especially to us young black men and with what we have to deal with in the community,” said Lawrence, who also plans to minor in business management while continuing to pursue his passion for music production.
“People always think we are going to be part of the statistics. But if a young man can make a difference in the world, it can show that it doesn’t matter what race you are, or how old you are or who you are, you can always accomplish your dreams. You don’t have to be who society says you are. You can make your own name.”
Check out more photos of the 2017 Minority Male Initiative Conference here.