Phalen Brown came to Florida in 1993 to attend college, but he quickly felt like he was in over his head at the vast university.
“I didn’t have great study habits,” Brown, 46, said. “When I was growing up, my grandmother would always say, ‘You need to get your lesson’, but that was a pretty general statement, and even though she meant to be supportive, I needed more specific instruction on how to succeed academically.”
Brown decided college wasn’t for him, moved to Tampa and got a job in a call center. He trained to be a licensed practical nurse, and he did that for a while. A couple of years back, he enrolled at St. Petersburg College to work on a degree in data analytics. When he got a call and an email last summer inviting him to join SPC’s newly resurrected Brother to Brother program, he decided to accept, and there, he found a safe, supportive group that was designed solely to lift him – and others like him – up to success.
“College always felt overwhelming to me, but the interaction and support I get in Brother to Brother is enormous,” Brown said. “I’m able to express my needs, ask questions and share my struggles, and, with all the campus support, I don’t have to wait for answers.”
Men with a mission
SPC’s Brother to Brother program seeks to address low success, retention and completion rates among African American male college students by addressing their barriers to success. Brother to Brother Program Manager Aaron Keith said that negative influences can be systemic, financial or personal, or they can be in the form of a lack of preparedness for college or a lack of family support.
Often, struggling students are resistant to asking for help, so Brother to Brother seeks to not only help African American male students find academic success, but also to build a supportive community at SPC where members feel comfortable expressing their needs. The group also nurtures relationships in the community to build bridges and encourage the men to be locally active.
“We try to achieve this through local resources, mentoring and forms of engagement that encourage and support their academic achievement, promote their personal and professional development, and identify barriers to their success,” Keith said.
Addressing all angles
In his first year as program manager, Keith has accomplished a lot. He ordered technology equipment, developed outreach and engagement centers at SPC’s Gibbs and Downtown locations, secured scholarship money and hosted a networking event – all in addition to the regular engagement activities he hosts for participants.
Brother to Brother members must meet one-on-one with program staff on a biweekly basis for close mentoring and attend biweekly “Power Hours.” Program participants connect over lunch with each other, along with other Black males on campus and in the community. Brother to Brother members can also reach out to Campus Champions, SPC employees who volunteer to be mentors, if they have an immediate issue that they need help with.
“The goal is to have as much help and advocacy as possible,” Keith said. “Campus Champions are volunteers, and we want to have multiple people on campus who our students know can advocate for them.”
The program also offers a Barbershop Talk series, an hour or so each month where the men can find a safe space to openly discuss issues that affect them. Keith solicits anonymous submissions for topics before the meetings, so the conversations can be wide-ranging, with the freedom to talk about things that might be a burden to their success or just things that they want to know more about.
“We talk about world events, financial concerns, current events – just about anything,” Brown said.
Another element of the program is community service. Members are encouraged to complete at least one hour per month volunteering. Keith said group members have donated time to many organizations and initiatives including the Boys and Girls Club and Keep Pinellas Beautiful.
“We want them to be present and invested in the well-being of the community,” Keith said. “It gives them the experience of being an active part of the community, as well as the joy of helping others.”
It’s not all seriousness. Keith pulls the group together for an outing each month to do something fun where they can just hang out and bond. The variety of support offered through all the engagement activities allows the program to address every angle.
“Each activity serves a different purpose from each member,” Keith said. “We have such a wide range of ages – between 17 and 60 – and each one is in a different place in their lives. We want to offer a wide variety of things that target each person’s needs.”
The program, which boasted 40 members last year, is really taking off. Keith said they are expecting 82 members in the Fall 2021 semester. And the results are showing in the first cohort’s grades: they earned a 2.92 median GPA.
This article originally appeared here.