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Seeking solace on the page

Although we have just begun our new series of blog posts “Befriending Statistics” I have to interrupt it because I am grieving over what happened this week at my Alma Mater, the University of Virginia and what is happening here in my home community of Petersburg, Virginia. The alleged shooter of three UVA football players, Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr. was a graduate of Petersburg High School where we have been conducing research on academic interventions for nearly four years. When I saw Chris Jones’ picture on the newscast, he looked familiar to me, I firmly believe that our paths have crossed.

I am grieving for Chris and for those team mates that were killed, Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D'Sean Perry. I am also grieving for my community. VSU is adjacent to Petersburg. While VSU is a “place of opportunity” where “greater happens here!” the same can’t be said for Petersburg. According to the reserach from Raj Shetty that I shared last week, the 30 year outcomes for children raised in Petersburg are not likely to be good. Children born and raised here are likely to not rise above the income level of their parents. I looked at the Petersburg’s ranking on the oppotunity scale by going to this website.

The idea that-“Where you grow up really matters in terms of opportuity” is not new. What is new is Shetty’s use of millions of data points to examine why. One reason, according to the findings, is that our country is segregated across race and class and it is the class-segregation thay may hurt the poor in the long run by denying them cultural capital. Shetty’s data suggest that moving out of poor neighborhoods could be helpful in providing cultural capital but our research here in Petersburg may show another way. It appears that by providing trained VSU mentors to Petersburg students, we are providing the cross-class interactions that increase the high schoolers comfort with being with people who grew up in completely differnet circumstances from them. Moreover it appears that the benefits of the mentoring relationships are bi-directional.

We knew from our previous research that the best near-peer mentors were not the ones with the high GPA but those that were high in empathy and compassion. Our primary hypothesis, backed by findings from other studies on First Generation college students, was that helping other students to acquire sound learning habits could increase thier use by the mentor and thus make the mentor a better student. What we found is that emotional and mental well-being improved for both groups. This year we seek to examine if the mentoring relationships can be leveraged for academic skill development. This will be more challenging because qualitative analysis revealed that the Petersburg High School students who participate in our intervention experience more negaitve emotions during the school day. More troubling is that the negative feelings associated with school may bleed over into their feelings about learning in general, which impedes academic motivation.

It must also be ackowledged that many of these students face other hurdles*. The residual effect of housing or food insecurity or growing up around violence or any of the myriad of issues associated with poverty and systemic racism may sap the resources and weaken the resolve needed to be college bound. ..and then even if they make it, just getting accepted into college is obviously not enough.

While HBCU’s are unique among institutions of higher learning and are not uniform in the learning contexts provided for our students, there are some things we have in common. The “Historical” part of HBCU means that they are more likely to be located near or within all-black neighborhoods where schools like Petersubrg High School are not uncommon. However, we are living at a time when that same history is drawing Generation X to HBCU’s in record numbers.

We will never know if the outcome would have been different for Chris Jones had he attended VSU instead of UVA. What we do know is that for every Black student who graduates from college, tens of thousands will not ever try and thousands will have tried and failed. They make up what one scholar called “the missing millions.” The tragedy of Chris Jones has reminded me of what I am up against. I can no longer ignore the missing millions or the forces that keep them missing.

I’m still in the inquiry. Writing helps. So does prayer.

Join me…in both.

You do have 15 minutes. *Read more about what Shetty’s data reveal about Black men who are unable to gain upward mobility and must also fight against the forces of downward mobility.

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