No one could have imagined the way my life is unfolding as a history-making student at Our Lady of the Lake University. Not my teachers in middle school. Not my counselors in high school. Not the colleges that rejected me. Not the researchers who chart the small and declining population of African American men pursuing higher education.
Truthfully, I never imagined myself in this position, either. But here I am, the first African American to serve as Student Government Association (SGA) president of a predominantly Hispanic school. Students elected me in 2015 and re-elected me last spring. Some peers tell me, “You should run for mayor.” Others refer to me as “Obama Jr.,” for being OLLU’s first black president and serving two terms.
As a senior public relations major, I’m sharing my story with the hope it inspires others, especially African American men, to pursue higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 28.5% of black men, ages 18-24, were enrolled in a college or university in 2014, down from 35.2% in 2010.
If I graduate, as planned in May 2017, I will belong to yet another minority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 22% of blacks age 25 and older held a four-year degree or higher in 2015. Studies show far more African American women (58%) have a college degree than African American men (42%).
I did not look like college material in secondary school. After Hurricane Katrina evacuees poured into my hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, my family moved to Mansfield, Texas, near Dallas. The African American majority I had grown up with became the minority. I was the only black student in the first class I attended at Wester Middle School. The material was so much more advanced from what I was used to in Louisiana. All the kids had formulas, concepts and much more prior knowledge than I had. I made Cs and Ds. I flunked remedial math.
I returned to Louisiana for eighth grade but came back to Mansfield for high school. I improved each year academically but did not graduate near the top of my class. I applied to four public universities. After my fourth rejection letter, I drove to my aunt’s house and told her I’d be attending community college. I cried the whole way back home. I was embarrassed and felt like such a disappointment. Not that community college isn’t good, but I felt as if God had called me to do something bigger.
Toward the end of the summer, I received a letter from a school I had never heard of. I opened the envelope and learned I could receive an $8,000 scholarship from Our Lady of the Lake University. I have no idea how OLLU heard of me. But I know that scholarship was Providence. I visited the campus with my aunt and instantly fell in love with its beauty.
When I began my freshman year in fall 2013, I initially felt very uncomfortable and out of my element, like I was in a study abroad program. I was in a city where the Mexican culture is dominant. The food, music and language were different. It seemed as if a small voice in the back of my head whispered, “You don’t belong here.” But I remembered my mom emphasizing the importance of getting an education.
So I stuck it out and slowly adapted. Instead of being intimidated by the culture, I learned to embrace it – from waking up in the morning to breakfast tacos to having the cafeteria staff call me “mijo.” I began to feel at home and worked hard to adjust to the academic rigor. I carry a B-average.
As my sophomore year was coming to a close, a good friend told me I should run for Student Government Association president. I laughed because I had no political knowledge and didn’t know very many people. As I walked back to my dorm, though, I began to think how nice it would be to become president and some of the changes I might be able to make.
I finally mustered up the courage to fill out an application. I went through an interview process and got approved to campaign. Two weeks later, I was elected SGA president. How did I do it? I focused on the possibility of winning instead of the probability of losing.
As SGA president, I brought food trucks to campus and founded the spirit organization that creates traditions – The Blue Crew. I started the March of Spirited Saints, a campus-wide event to support athletic teams the day before games, and co-founded the university hand sign known as “Wings Up.” I created the Wings Up design and Wings Up t-shirts. I also created Roscoe Blue and Raven White, Spirit Ambassadors who pump up the crowds with dancing at athletic events.
I am a face of hope. Studies show there is an overrepresentation of black men in prison and an underrepresentation of black men in college. As a native of Natchitoches, I know what it’s like to grow up with limited resources and to live in low-performing school districts. A large percentage of incarcerated black men come from similar areas. Despite my background and academic struggles, I’ve never had a problem with police. I don’t have a record of any sort. I came to a university where I was a minority, adapted and became a leader.
My legacy is all around me. Every time someone flashes the Wings Up sign or wears a Wings Up shirt, I want to cry because it is evidence that if you work hard and trust in God, anything is possible.
Top image: Christopher Robinson gives a “wings up” hand sign has become a favorite tradition at Our Lady of the Lake University. Photo courtesy of OLLU.