By Emily Krawczyk and Charles Buchanan
Xavian Tate calls himself “the Future Dr. Tate.” He is confident — and rightly so.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham sophomore biomedical sciences major in the School of Health Professions, who is planning a career as a clinician, also studies Spanish and K-12 education for science/technology/engineering/math. In his free time, he writes songs and poetry.
But a couple of years ago, Tate arrived on campus from Anniston, Alabama, feeling shy and uncertain. The UAB BMEN (Blazer Male Excellence Network) peer mentoring program encouraged him to open up and make connections that are helping him realize his dreams, he says.
“With BMEN, I had the best freshman experience ever,” Tate explains. “My mentor helped me become who I am toward other people. BMEN shaped me.” Now Tate is paying forward that positive experience with newer students. The mentee has become the mentor — the 2018 BMEN Mentor of the Year, in fact.
Invitation to opportunity
Across America, black men have the lowest retention and graduation rates of any student group in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Ten years ago, students led efforts to establish BMEN to address the issue at UAB. The program provides new students with academic and social support by partnering them with returning students trained as mentors.
UAB staff also take part, providing information to help the students acclimate to college and make the transition seem less intimidating. And everyone’s work pays off. Many BMEN students achieve a grade point average that earns presidential honors or places on the dean’s list throughout college. BMEN alumni include doctors, lawyers, dentists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and policymakers, among others. Many of them remain actively involved with the program.
Building connections with potential members begins early. Before graduation, every black male high-school student accepted to UAB receives an invitation to join BMEN.
“It’s not just high-achieving high schools, and it doesn’t matter whether you have a 2.5 or a 4.2 GPA,” says Jeremy Blackmon, a BMEN mentor from Birmingham who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies. “If you’re a young black male, we’re reaching out to you, giving you the opportunity.”
Freshmen members often arrive on campus early for BMEN Enrichment Week, and all of them take a BMEN course in the College of Arts and Sciences African American studies program. The class teaches them to organize and prioritize their first year of college while they cultivate leadership skills. Along with their mentors, students interact with faculty, staff, and community professionals, such as consultants who discuss professional wardrobe and etiquette.
An annual retreat helps establish and strengthen relationships as mentees become mentors. Tate recalls feeling anxious during his first visit. Surrounded by other new BMEN mentors and student leaders from UAB’s Office of Student Multicultural and Diversity Programs, he assumed his eclectic taste in art and music wouldn’t appeal to his peers. But the others included him in conversations and activities and were genuinely curious about his interests and hobbies. “I just lit up, because in that moment, I was a part of something,” Tate says. “And it has been that way from then on out.”
Mentors and mentees talk at least once a week, sometimes about school, sometimes about life’s trials and tribulations. “I still talk with mentees from two years ago,” says Blackmon, now pursuing a career in public health. “They go from being mentees to my little brothers.” Students also ask questions and seek advice via a group text message that reaches all members. School can be difficult, even for the best of students, Blackmon notes. “BMEN teaches young black males to not be so prideful and realize that help is available. I’ve seen every mentee and mentor take advantage of that.”
In the end, BMEN isn’t just about academics. It’s about relationships, Blackmon adds. “You can come and be yourself, and you’re guaranteed a family throughout your college career and afterward. I would not be in the perfect place I am now if not for BMEN introducing me to people and opportunities.”