MTSU’s Office of Student Success hopes to help improve graduation and persistence rates among the university’s Black male students through a lecture series aimed at developing their individual identities and deepening their engagement in campus life.
The Black Male Lecture Series was launched a few years ago to address the sometimes unique challenges faced by this population of students by hosting a variety of Black career professionals to expose students to possible career paths and networking.
Former NFL player Jay Barnett, an author, speaker, family therapist and mental health coach, has been the featured speaker, hosting a total of eight sessions (most virtually) with the 25 participating students. The program wraps up in February.
“He meets with the students via bi-weekly Zoom to talk to them about different issues that their facing: self-esteem, resentment, abandonment, health masculinity,” said Travis Strattion, assistant manager of the Scholars Academy, and coordinator of the series. “Recently we talked about emotional intelligence, and ultimately making sure you’re doing everything you can for your well-being, your mental health, so that you can focus on your academics and graduating.
“This is an issue that we wanted to focus on.”
Barnett gave a keynote address in August to Scholars Academy participants and their parents at Keathley University Center. Scholars Academy, along with the Student Transition and Academic Readiness Program, or STAR, is a freshman year experience opportunity designed to enhance student learning and success through academic, social and long-term support.
“College is more than just an experience. It’s an opportunity,” Barnett told the group. “It’s an opportunity that, whether you finish or not, it’s still an opportunity to grow as a person and as a human being. You’re going to meet people and you’re going to have experiences in college that you wouldn’t cherish as a high school student. In college, you may be sitting next to the CEO of a huge company.”
The students who went on to commit to this year’s Black Males Lecture Series program have been journaling as a part of Barnett’s K.I.N.G. program, which stands for Kindling Innovation Necessary for Growth. The program’s curriculum includes group discussions, two books (Hello King and Just Heal, Bro), as well as assignments.
“The students have definitely received it well,” Strattion said. “These sessions are deep, and it’s a place where students can be vulnerable and have a safe space. It allows them to unpack; it allows them to unleash and to talk about various things that are hindering their growth and progression.”
Senior commercial songwriting major Joshua Gray of St. Louis said the series “was eye-opening” because of its focus on an area that hasn’t always been at the forefront of discussions surrounding his peer group.
“The other barrier that was being broken was men being in touch with their emotions. Just acknowledging that something is going on with me and figuring out what can I do about it instead of trying to run from it, hide it or suppress it.”
The series started in 2019 with a goal to retain, graduate and assist more Black males with identity development while providing a space for Black males to find a sense of belonging on campus and in the community.
Brelinda Johnson, manager of the Scholars Academy, developed the vision for the series and worked with Vincent Windrow, associate vice provost for Student Success, on identifying potential speakers for the series.
Past speakers included Derek Young, author, motivational speaker, culture and career strategist; Dr. Rubin Cockrell, author, educational leader and management consultant; gospel and jazz musician Kevin Whalum; and Apostle Amos Howard, Sr. author and financial/real estate adviser.
Strattion noted that even outside of the stresses of the pandemic, mental health and wellness has been a growing area of focus within higher education as educators recognize the unique pressures that today’s college students face. Barnett’s focus on this area made him a perfect fit for the lecture series this fall.
For Gray, that potential manifested in a successful run to become the 2021 Homecoming king. And as president of the Collegiate 100 Black Men of MTSU student group and a peer mentor for the Scholars Academy, he has continued to stay engaged in the campus community as he moves closer to a Spring 2022 graduation.
“Sometimes you just have to go with the tools you already have, and the tools that you need will come after you take that first step of faith,” he said.
And sometimes that first step is the simplest one.
“We as Black men are going to have to do work as well, and the work that we’re going to have to do is not being afraid to ask for help,” Gray said. “One, if you take the time to ask for help, you won’t go through life alone because you can’t go through life alone. Two, you might actually find the help you need.”