Societal consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have entirely altered the world of academia. This speaks to the way of life for all students, but particularly students of color and underrepresented students with fewer resources to accomplish their educational goals, or even go to class. However, these racial and class disparities in education are present throughout all of history, and yet there exists no functioning resolution within the institution.
“Those that have raised graduation rates for low-income students have often relied on wraparound services, addressing the needs of the whole student,” Vimal Patel, senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote “That includes caring for their financial and mental health, and creating a network of support with cohorts, early interventions and extra counseling. A ‘high touch’ learning environment, as many advocates call it.”
On March 20th, local organization Building Successful Bridges announced on Instagram a project in which they would offer $200 to 5 different University of Michigan students to aid their transition back home amidst the hectic rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. The genesis of Building Successful Bridges first began in 2016 when incoming freshmen Kingsley Enechukwu, Darrell Tubbs and Nando Felten and nearly ten other young black men connected over their noticeable detachment from the educational and professional development which had been abundantly provided to their new peers. Soon after, the official team and founders would be LSA students Tubbs and Felten, and Ross students Enechukwu and Kendall Van Allen.
“We all had similar experiences in the sense that our school didn’t really prepare us for college and the transition to college, or [teach us] ultimately how to be successful there,” Enechukwu said. “This was the beginning of Boys Seeking Billions which sought to provide success coaching to underrepresented minorities and communities to ultimately give them the tool kit to enter high paying industries.”
Felten and friend Kendall Van Allen also took note of the lack of diversity in fields of entrepreneurship and business. Eventually, the four men realized the power of merging into one organization, now called Building Successful Bridges, which provides service to students of color spanning ages sixteen to twenty-one.
“Our goal is to offer young students contemporary life and professional skill sets which enable them to harness their full potential. These young men and women have been historically behind in graduation rates, wealth accumulation, leadership roles and we wanna reverse this trend of inequality and increase diverse success,” Van Allen said. “You see a lot of academic initiatives, or like basically tutorship, but not something that’s more encompassing than that. So we’re more like life coaches, really mentorship in all aspects.”
Tubbs disclosed that being a student of color has created barriers for making these resources accessible. He believes Building Successful Bridges acknowledges these barriers with a focus on structure at an institutional level.
“There’s a reason why we don’t necessarily get [what] we’re supposed to get because there are barriers within the institution that people don’t often identify or talk about,” Tubbs said.
“The idea is creating spaces which aren’t traditional educational settings,” Van Allen said, “so not the traditional charter school, but they are like educational empowerment systems.”
Building Successful Bridges tackles the idea of life-encompassing mentorship through a variety of platforms. Earlier this year, Van Allen and Felten worked with Improve Your Tomorrow, an established pre-college program for young men of color based in Sacramento, California. At a conference on identity, they were able to reach students from across the nation, teaching workshops on imposter syndrome and how to overcome it.
Felten also spoke on his current project with the University, where he is working to create a course with the School of Education.
“We’re trying to make a community engagement class. So that’s taking not just students who are focusing their studies in education, but students who are majoring in, you know, business, engineering, psychology, architecture,” Felten said. “And using these students to be facilitators in the classroom so we can have a more community-engaged learning experience at the University of Michigan.”
Tubbs spoke on their current work to engage with the incoming freshmen, particularly those who intended on partaking in the summer enrichment programs that the University offers.
“Our most immediate goal amidst the pandemic is to launch an online platform for us to better engage with students and faculty members and help aid them through this tough time,” Tubbs said. “However, this is not enough, because an important sector we’re trying to hit is the people who don’t have technology”.
Tubbs said that projects like these, their wellness challenge — which spread through Instagram promoting different habits to enrich physical, mental and spiritual health — and the money that they have been able to donate to students is how he defines success. Kingsley and him believe they have touched more than one person and they attributed this development to their own mutual connections. Each person that they met provided them with another key network to then have more conversation with.
Enechukwu believes the key to the program is to meet students where they are, in both their personal and educational journeys. And then from there, it is integral to establish psychological safety for the student to then be able to open up and share what is going on in their personal lives or at school. After doing that, they create a game plan on how to get to that next step. Regardless of each student’s differences, that three-prong approach allows them to hit all the key aspects of a student and see them progress and grow.
“We’re never (going to) get to a point where one size fits all,” Tubbs said. “We will always base it on the individual because we recognize the difference in personal experience.”
The young men mentioned that aside from their immediate goals, they have a much larger vision for the future which includes expanding to a national level of outreach. They plan on establishing hubs in most, if not all, cities and at most universities. These expansions surely cannot be done without help from mentors, partner organizations, grants or other funding opportunities such as scholarships and donations.
“If this type of program existed, a lot of the mistakes I made in my journey I probably could have avoided. I wasn’t at all sure how to navigate college correctly or obtain goals,” Tubbs said. “So if I had this guidance it would have been easier for me to stay on track and accomplish a lot more.”
In short, Felten encompassed the group’s belief of the huge need for responsive trauma-informed advocates, interventionists and mentors who can connect with these students. Most importantly, ones who look like them and share their same experience. He explained that what’s missing is the actual engagement, interaction and execution of trauma-informed practice.
“There is this cultural competency that comes into place and without that competency, the impact [of mentorship and guidance] is not as effective,” Felten said. “So we believe that this aspect is incredibly important.”
Building Successful Bridges exists to address, heal and grow. One must address the personal afflictions that have created trauma for a student, the institutional barriers that have limited one’s academic success and the merging of the two that have prevented professional achievement. But BSB is more than this — it is a space to connect and develop with oneself and those who acknowledge that self. It is unique in its foundation, its accomplishments and its goals. It is life-encompassing to the core. We must look to organizations and efforts such as this, and look to men such as Kendall Van Allen, Kingsley Enechukwu, Darrell Tubbs and Nando Felten, support them, donate to them and share their story to get involved.
Building Successful Bridges can be contacted and donations can be received through email: email@example.com. Social media: @buildingsuccessfulbridges. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/building-successful-bridges/.