Dr. Carlos Medina will never forget Sister Hortencia.

He was in fourth grade at a Brooklyn Catholic School. His mother and father had working-class roots in Puerto Rico and moved to the city in the 1940s, although his father passed away when Medina was only five. He was being raised by his hard-working seamstress mother and his grandmother, both of whom instilled the value of education – even though the latter was illiterate.

He was in high spirits that school day and slow to join the line of children, perhaps a little too busy fooling around.

“Carlos, you ain’t ever going to be anything in your life,” the nun snarled.

After all these years, the words stuck with him, still lodged in his heart. They could have derailed many a young student, leaving them in a spiral of self-defeat.

“I chose instead to take it as a challenge,” Medina told the audience at the college’s first Men of Excellence Conference. “I decided to prove her wrong.”

It’s a conundrum faced by many young men of color. Judged negatively due to stereotypes, they enter the academic world – only to feel that they don’t belong. They face classrooms where there are few other black or brown men, either as students or instructors. As a result, they may lack confidence – and abandon their educational dreams.

On Aug. 26, SUNY Broome held its first-ever Men of Excellence Conference to address the needs of male students of color on our campus. Sponsored by the President’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, the student-oriented conference launched a year-long program that will focus on providing SUNY Broome’s men of color with intensive academic, professional and social support. The conference, which had an earlier session on Wednesday night, included students, faculty and staff.

“Community colleges are supposed to be about inclusion from our inception, whereas higher education was initially about exclusion,” said SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm. While the student population has become more diverse through the years, Dr. Drumm acknowledged that the lack of minorities among faculty and staff ranks continues to be a challenge, but one the college is willing to confront.

Discussing diversity and particularly race in today’s heated political environment can be especially difficult, he noted.

“These issues we are talking about are among the toughest we will tackle,” he said.

A numerical gap

Statistically speaking, both black and Hispanic men are under-represented when it comes to earning college degrees. Approximately 27 percent of black men and 34 percent of Hispanic men will earn their college degree, compared to 85 percent of whites and 60 percent of Asians, according to statistics provided by Carlton Goode, founder of Building African American Males (BAAM), which seeks to foster the academic, personal and social success of young collegiate men of color.

The African-American community also has the largest gender gap in educational attainment. In 2005, 35.8 percent of African-American men were enrolled, compared to 64.2 percent of African-American women, Goode said.

In addition to dealing with persistent stereotypes pertaining to race, a student may find himself to be the only person of color in a classroom – leading him to question whether he truly belongs, Goode said. To mask feelings of doubt and insecurity, students may adopt the “cool pose” with an attitude of nonchalance that can be considered rude or defiant. This coping mechanism isn’t intended to be rude, but is rather a way for students to keep their dignity, Goode explained.

To succeed, students need to foster self-esteem, self-efficiency or a belief in their own capacity to achieve, and grit – an attitude of stick-to-it-iveness that will see them through every obstacle. Studies have shown that grit helps determine success, even more than test scores or other measures, Goode said.

“According to the stereotypes, you’re not supposed to be here. But you are here because you have got that grit,” he told students.

Students can also need a helping hand early in the process, such as having mentors help them apply for their first internship or show them how to study. His example: a former student of his named Jarvis McCowin, who put off applying for internships. One day, Goode sat down with Jarvis to help him complete an application – which the student then received. In semesters to come, Jarvis applied for and arranged his own internships as a far afield as Ghana.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Jarvis – who went on to graduate school – is one of the college’s two Residence Hall Directors and a mentor to young men of color himself.

MCowin asked five students what they most wanted the SUNY Broome community to know about young men of color. Their stories were varied, and sometimes deeply sad: One lost his mother shortly before he came to school; another was a widower and single father from Atlanta who lost his wife and youngest child.  Students described themselves as apt to smile and laugh, despite what can seem like a stern demeanor, nervous despite an outer show of confidence and driven to succeed.

“We are not aggressive thugs as people think we are,” one student said.

Keynote speaker

Dr. Carlos Medina did defy Sister Hortencia’s expectations — through long years of hard work. He became the first Latino vice chancellor in the history of the SUNY system and is also SUNY’s Chief Diversity Officer, one of only a handful to hold the position within higher education nationally. A graduate of both SUNY Cortland and Cornell University, he was also a national champion in karate, as well as the father of two sons.

While a quarter of SUNY’s student population consists of minorities, the system still has a long way to go before reaching equity. Medina pointed to his own bittersweet identity as the system’s first Hispanic vice chancellor: a proud achievement, to be sure, but rather late in SUNY’s nearly 70-year history. There are currently no Hispanic college presidents in the system, he added.

The vice chancellor stressed that programs such as Men of Excellence ultimately benefit all students by establishing needed services and opportunities. “What’s good for students in need is good for all students,” he said.

He counseled students not to be afraid of asking for help, to challenge themselves and to stick with others who are trying to improve their lives. Understand that success doesn’t come easy, and failure can be part of the learning process.

“The harder the journey, I think, the greater the prize,” he said.

Rap sessions

In addition to talks by Goode and Medina, other conference events included a student rap session that provided a safe space to discuss issues of masculinity, community and self-worth, as well as sessions for students on etiquette, the transition to college and SUNY Broome’s many resources. Faculty and staff sessions included a discussion led by SUNY Broome alumna Lea Webb of Webb Consulting and Brian Rowland of Visionary Leadership on how to support Men of Excellence, as well as the creation of culturally inclusive classrooms.

Participating students received certificates of completion and took an oath of excellence.

Conversations sometimes veered into difficulty territory – but that was part of the point, organizers noted.

“Sometimes you learn something that makes you uncomfortable,” Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti said. “That’s when the real learning takes place.”