Brothers on the Rise helps students stay, succeed

July 8, 2015 | Features, UToday, Advancement
By Staff

College requires a major adjustment for many new students. They face various problems, based largely on their previous educational experience, culture and family situation.

“Students come to The University of Toledo with varied levels of academic preparedness, maturity and cultural readiness,” said Dr. Willie McKether, associate dean and associate professor in the College of Languages, Literature and Social Sciences. “First-generation, direct-from-high-school, and low-income students particularly face unique challenges.”

Demond Pryor, director of the Office of Recreation and vice chair of mentoring with Brothers on the Rise, shook hands with Deon Brown, a sixth-grader at Bennett Venture Academy, last month when students from the Toledo school visited campus.

Demond Pryor, director of the Office of Recreation and vice chair of mentoring with Brothers on the Rise, shook hands with Deon Brown, a sixth-grader at Bennett Venture Academy, last month when students from the Toledo school visited campus.

Being part of a predominantly white campus population, and often coming from an underperforming urban school district and a low-income household, he noted, can be intimidating and overwhelming.

Founded in 2011, Brothers on the Rise offers these students a lifeline. The group’s objective is to help UT males, especially African-American and Latino, make the transition from high school to college.

“We targeted this population because it has the lowest first- to second-year retention and graduation rates on campus,” McKether, Brothers on the Rise president, said.

In 2013, 18 percent of UT’s African-American male students and 39 percent of Latino males graduated after six years, compared with 51 percent of the University’s white male students. The greatest gap is in the retention between the students’ first and second years of college.

“When you see guys on campus one semester and you don’t see them the next, it hurts,” McKether said. “This is nothing short of a crisis. We lose kids all the time who want to be here but don’t know how to be here.”

To assist this transition, the group’s dozen faculty volunteers conduct biweekly “real talk” discussions with members to address concerns such as study habits and social issues. The group also assigns each student a UT mentor — faculty or staff member or graduate student — and connects him with another mentor from the community.

“We attempt to match students with members from the community in the profession or type of work in which the student hopes to engage upon graduation,” McKether said.

Victor Aberdeen Jr., who graduated in May with a bachelor of arts degree in English and communication, was matched with a local lawyer.

“My biggest off-campus mentor has been Pariss Coleman. He is an attorney here in Toledo,” Aberdeen said. “Pariss has taught me the importance of discipline, planning and professionalism.”

Aberdeen, who has been involved with Brothers on the Rise since 2012, will begin his first year as a law student at UT this fall.

He credited Brothers on the Rise leaders and on-campus mentors as well.

“Dr. McKether and Dr. [Anthony ] Quinn [assistant dean and associate professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics] both did a great job of encouraging the students to be active and take leadership roles at the University. I believe that taking on any role on campus, regardless of how big or small, allows for the student to grow as a leader and professional,” Aberdeen said.

As an undergraduate, Aberdeen was president of the African Peoples Association and served as a Presidential Ambassador.

In addition to McKether and Quinn, Aberdeen mentioned Dr. Sammy Spann, assistant provost for international studies and programs.

“Dr. Spann has been a constant source of support and encouragement for me from when I arrived at UT as a freshman. He has taught me that any idea is never out of reach regardless of how big of an idea it may be,” Aberdeen said.

As Brothers on the Rise enters its third year, efforts are paying off. Many students have experienced improvements in their grades, and many, like Aberdeen, are in leadership roles on campus. In addition, the majority of members are returning to UT year after year.

Thanks to a request from Xavier Owens, principal of Bennett Venture Academy in Toledo, Brothers on the Rise recently expanded its reach.

“I talked to Dr. McKether some time ago to express an idea that counters the ‘school house to jail house track,’ a process too many urban families are too familiar with. We want to create a school house to college track,” Owens said.

“One parent recently told me she took her kid to a Scared Straight Program; I told that mom that won’t work because our students understand this process all too well. I suggested taking him to a university so he can see what’s on the other end of the spectrum.

“After that conversation, I immediately called Dr. McKether. He made things happen with an all-day university visit for some of my most challenging students,” Owens said.

Ten Bennett Venture Academy students — nine boys and one girl — spent a day at UT last month.

“Xavier wanted these young students to meet African-American college students, professionals and professors,” Quinn said. “Many of these students had never been on UT’s campus and never imagined themselves attending college.”

“Too many urban youth do not understand that college is reachable and doable. Our primary goal for the visit was to put students around highly positive and successful black men,” Owens said.

Spann arranged for vans to transport the local students to and from the University. Demond Pryor, director of the Office of Recreation and vice chair of mentoring for Brothers on the Rise, provided meeting space in the Student Recreation Center.

“Brothers on the Rise undergraduate and graduate students took the lead in fielding questions from the students,” McKether said. “We were amazed and impressed with the quality and quantity of questions these young people had about attending college.

“We’re now discussing with Bennett the possibility of Brothers on the Rise adopting this school on a pilot basis to establish a mentoring program where we spend more time with these and other potential future Rockets.”

Even with these successes, Brothers on the Rise faces some hurdles.

“A major obstacle we face is lack of infrastructure and staffing to coordinate the program,” McKether noted. “Despite our knowing what works in retention, the volunteer nature of the organization makes it difficult to sustain and sub-optimizes efforts.”

The key to the organization’s continued success is financial support, according to Vern Snyder, UT vice president for institutional advancement.

“Dr. McKether and Dr. Quinn have accomplished a lot with very few resources. They have done wonders,” Snyder said. “Brothers on the Rise is worthy of support from our alumni and friends.”

For information on supporting Brothers on the Rise, contact Snyder at vern.snyder@ or 419.530.4249.

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