May 3, 2011

Forum Explores Challenges of Black Men at Cornell

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More than 30 students and staff gathered Tuesday evening in Anabel Taylor Hall to discuss the challenges that men of color face at Cornell, including low graduation rates, low numbers of underrepresented staff and faculty, and racism.

According to Cornell’s recently released 2010 Undergraduate Graduation Rate Report, 75 percent of black male students and 87 percent of Latino male students graduated within six years, while 91 percent of their white peers graduated over the same time period — a frequent subject of concern at Tuesday’s meeting.

James Sparkman ’13 said that because he grew up with a mentality that he could do everything alone, he sometimes hesitates to ask for help or asks for help too late.

Jayson Jones ’11 echoed his sentiments, explaining that sometimes students’ pride may make it harder for them to seek help.

“To me, the biggest thing is that, given how well we did in high school and how far we’ve come to get here, I think a lot of us are proud, which is a great thing — it’s a good thing to be proud. But it’s a problem when we let pride stand in the way of our success,” he said.

Emani Fenton ’11 suggested that the presence of staff and faculty of color may be linked to having the confidence to ask for assistance. Other students agreed, emphasizing the increased ease with which they can approach staff and faculty that look like them.

“The professor that I’m closest to is Latino,” Mario Rivera ’11 said. “Is that a coincidence? No.”

During the discussion, several students said the Pre-Freshman Summer Program — as well as student groups like the Men of Color Council and the LINK: Men’s Alliance — play an instrumental role in promoting networking and combating isolation among male students of color on campus.

Students also discussed the effects of racism and bias on their perceptions of the campus climate at Cornell.

One student recalled a class in which the professor often confused his name with the names of the two other black students in the class. Joseph Agyei ’11 recalled a peer reacting with racial slurs to President Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008.

Students and staff discussed a lack of community among students of color on campus and agreed that informal and formal means of mentorship provided some, but not enough, support.

The meeting on Tuesday marks the first of a series of discussions with students, faculty and administrators through which Renee Alexander ’74, recently appointed associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, hopes to develop a better sense of the issues affecting Cornell’s communities of color.

“In my new role as associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, one of my primary roles will be doing community-building among students of color on this campus. I thought I’d start with the men of color,” Alexander said.

Fenton expressed optimism that the new initiatives and programs under the intercultural center will bring people together and work to broaden the experiences of various people.

“It’s an issue of perception for me. Sometimes comments are made from lack of experience interacting with certain people,” he said. “I understand that there are people on campus that share very different views, and I’d like to think that we can come together for a shared cause or goal.”

Jonathan Pomboza ’11 echoed Fenton’s sentiment and optimism.

“I feel that this is a great start toward reinventing the Cornell experience for the undergraduate male of color, and I’m excited for the future. People had a lot of insightful comments tonight, and this is insight that comes with having gone through these experiences,” he said.

Ernest Meadows ’11 praised the dialogue and pressed the need for further action.

“Of course, more meetings like this need to happen in the future,” he said. “The most important thing, though, is the follow-up to these kinds of meetings. We need to see concrete actions to build community and to move forward together.”

Original Author: Lawrence Lan