As a black man, I felt significant pressure to succeed from my culture but lacked the support, tools and resources needed to help guide me on the road to achievement I so desperately wanted to reach.
Soon after graduating from McCluer North High School, I was accepted into Arkansas State University, a Division 1 school. I believed the cross-country track scholarship and academic scholarship I received would pave the way toward achieving my dreams. It wasn’t quite that easy.
Though Arkansas State University treated me well, the lack of diversity at the school played a large role in developing a key awareness that black men have a place in society. I couldn’t afford a private high school education like my white teammates and classmates or pay for my own college tuition. If I had the same opportunity of resources, perhaps I could have adequately prepared myself for success in higher education.
Sadly, the consequences of my reality did not go unnoticed. I struggled with keeping my grades up and, as assignments grew harder, my grades eroded to almost nothing. I attempted to reach out to a few friends for advice, only to find out that my predominantly white peers were either excelling with little to no effort or paying someone else to do their assignments for them. This information shocked and stunned me, furthering the divide between black struggle and white privilege.
The absence of support and community penetrated me at every level. How was it that everyone around me seemed to be succeeding (in one way or another) so effortlessly and my efforts were measuring up to a mound of failures? This dichotomy between success and failure perpetuated the very real feeling of isolation I was experiencing. I lost all motivation and positive attitude. My new norm consisted of partying and skipping classes, which led to me losing both scholarships.
I tried reaching out to my father, but his only advice was: “Just get a degree, son.” He couldn’t understand just how much I needed his support.
My last-ditch effort manifested itself as a visit to the Student Support Center. I knew it was time to make a significant change from within if I was ever going to show the world the man I knew I could become.
I talked to an African American man named Jerrod Lockhart, a student support counselor who became my saving grace.
Jerrod was a student himself, working toward his doctorate, and understood the struggles I was facing. His narrative encouraged me to trust his advice, and I began to show up at his office every Tuesday and Thursday. During each meeting, we would have long conversations about how to actively work toward the image of the man I wanted to become.
He set me up with planners and organizers, tutored me and showed me how to implement time-management techniques that freed up more space for track practice. Gradually, I learned to evaluate situations from the aspect of personal responsibility, transforming my chaotic life into an organized routine with purpose and structure. These were efforts that my grades thanked me for.
As my relationship with my mentor continued, a network of support grew. In 2016, I partnered with a group of African-American men within the BSA, Black Student Association. We would hang out and create positive connections with other men of color. Our drive was to encourage and empower others to graduate and become men of change and excellence.
For the first time, I was experiencing a support group of friends I could count on and this opened me to a blinding awareness: St. Louis was missing positive male mentorship. I brought this issue up with my friend Chris Hill, and he suggested we be the advocates of change we wanted to see. So, we came up with the idea to start offering space for any man of color who wanted to share his experiences and find support.
On our first night, only five people came, but our spirits were not dampened. In the next two months, we extended the same invitation and somewhere between 30 and 50 men showed up.
Today, our little idea has grown into a successful organization, ManUpSTL, which services the entire St. Louis region. We currently have five schools connected with our mentorship program, allowing over 500 youth to access and be connected to a mentor. We host large community events where hundreds of men can come together and have real conversations about both their hardships and successes. We currently offer four programs:FundaMENtals,Man2Man,D.A.D. Devoted & Dedicated, andThe Tribe, but are looking to add more.
If I had never met my mentor, I don’t think I would be where I am today or be the man I am today. My life and my grades got back on track, both literally and metaphorically, and in the spring of 2016 I graduated with a Business/Sports Management and Marketing degree and walked across the stage with a 3.6 GPA.
Andre Walker who is the co-founder of ManUpSTL (https://www.manupstl.com) and a motivational speaker.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.