Spotlight: Near-Peer Mentoring Program Expands Opportunity for Male Students of Color

Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Lauren Norton
Senior Associate

While the educational attainment of Hispanic students has increased significantly over the past decade, the representation of Hispanic males continues to lag behind that of their peers. In fact, only two in three Hispanic males graduate from high school each year, compared to 89 percent of their White peers.

This gap continues into postsecondary, with only 20 percent of Hispanic males earning an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 30 percent of Black students and 45 percent of White students. With communities of color disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many Hispanic students planning to change or cancel their educational plans this fall, the inequities in postsecondary access and attainment for Hispanic males are in danger of widening.

These gaps are rooted in long-standing, systemic inequities that disadvantage students of color in progressing to and through higher education. Due to economic and social discrimination, Hispanic students are more likely to come from families with lower family incomes and lower parental education levels. They are also more likely to attend schools with less funding, less experienced teachers, less rigorous curricular options, and fewer school counselors. Hispanic males, in particular, are overrepresented in the number of students who are held back a grade, identified for special education services, and suspended or expelled. All of these factors serve as significant barriers to accessing and succeeding in higher education. 

Despite these formidable challenges, a growing body of research has demonstrated the power of taking an asset-based approach to student support – one that leverages the various forms of “cultural wealth” that already exist within the Hispanic community. This includes “social wealth,” or the networks of relationships that build students’ social capital, a concept that my colleague wrote about in detail in her recent blog post. One approach to promoting social wealth is using near-peer mentors from within the Hispanic community to provide students with a range of academic, social, and navigational supports along their path to and through higher education. 

Project MALES, based at the University of Texas at Austin, aims to do just that. They tackle the educational barriers for Hispanic males through three interrelated initiatives: (1) a national research institute focused on exploring the experiences of Hispanic males across the education pipeline, (2) a statewide consortium focused on leveraging cross-sector strategies to ensure the success of male students of color across the state, and (3) a near-peer mentoring program that aims to cultivate an engaged support network for males of color.

We were fortunate to talk with Dr. Emmet Campos, Director of Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, and Rodrigo Aguayo, Program Coordinator, to learn more.

To start us off, can you tell us more about Project MALES and how it got started?

Campos: Project MALES was founded a decade ago by Dr. Victor Saenz and Dr. Luis Ponjuanwho were  conducting research on the educational experiences of Latino males at a time when little research was being done on the subject. We have since grown Project MALES into a research institute across two flagship campuses – UT Austin and Texas A&M – with over 45 research affiliates across the country. 

Aguayo: The heart and soul of our work, the student mentoring program, was launched a couple years later. It started as a pilot at one local high school. Now, we deploy 70 undergraduate mentors who serve 330 young men across 16 middle and high schools in the Central Texas region. Every week, mentors visit with students to discuss a variety of topics ranging from college preparation to financial literacy to the skills needed to succeed in college and beyond. 

Your dual focus on academic research and direct student support is a unique model. What are some of the specific ways your research informs practice?

Campos: Our mentoring program is based directly on our research findings – using a near peer, intergenerational model to leverage social capital among male students of color to promote a stronger college-going culture among those students. 

In addition, we lead the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, or “the Consortium,” which is a network of local school districts, two-year colleges, and four-year institutions from across the state who are deeply committed to improving educational outcomes for Black male and Latino students. Through the Consortium, we aim to leverage the collective knowledge and expertise across sectors to implement and sustain effective policies, programs, and practices for supporting postsecondary success for male students of color.

We also provide opportunities for our mentors to engage directly with the research. Our graduate students actively contribute to research projects on the educational experiences of Latino males across the education pipeline, and our undergraduate students can enroll in a for-credit, service learning course. This course immerses students in research on the value of mentorship and on the systemic inequities faced by male students of color. 

The Project MALES mentorship program follows a near-peer model. What benefits does that approach have for the population of students that you serve?

Campos: Our mentorship model is built on an intergenerational approach. Professionals – such as graduate students, student affairs professionals, and community leaders – serve as mentors to undergraduate students, who in turn mentor local middle and high school students. Nearly all of our mentors are students of color, and many have similar backgrounds to the mentees they are serving. When you have students working with near-peers, they are given a role model where they can see themselves reflected. This helps to propel them forward in their educational journey. And it also helps to build a sense of community. There are deep feelings of trust and a cultural connection that underpin each of these mentor relationships.

What is the focus of your mentoring curriculum? What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do you hope to instill in the students you support?

Aguayo: Our mentoring curriculum is centered around five key themes: brotherhood, leadership, college and career readiness, health and wellness, and identity. Above all, our focus is on building students’ social-emotional skills, which we recognize as being just as important as academic readiness for being successful in college and beyond. 

Our annual Summer Leadership Academy is a good example of how we bring all of these components together. Students spend two days on the UT Austin campus, including an overnight stay in the dorms. They take a campus tour, meet with faculty and staff, and attend workshops focused on our five themes. The goal of the Summer Leadership Academy is to help mitigate the effects of summer learning loss and, more importantly, to help demystify the college experience.

Given your focus on supporting male students of color, how have you integrated culturally-relevant practices into the mentoring curriculum?

Campos: We recognize that the disparities in educational attainment for males of color is a historic problem. It’s structural, institutional, and systemic. We take an asset-based approach to our work, giving students the tools they need to successfully navigate their schools and overcome some of the microaggressions they’ve had to contend with. Our messaging to students is that our goal is to help them be better than where they currently are. If we have a high school student who works with his dad or uncle outside of school in an auto repair shop, we talk with them about how they can work towards owning their own auto repair company, as an example. We want students to consider all of their options, reflect on what they want out of life, and help them map out how to get there.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant disruptions to the education sector, particularly for low-income students and students of color. How has your work pivoted in response to the pandemic?

Campos: In light of the pandemic, we’ve had to pivot to find new ways to deliver our work. On the research side, we’ve been able to extend our reach through a series of webinars that are accessible both to members of the Consortium and to the general public. Each of these webinars has been grounded in lifting up solutions to the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic for male students of color in transitioning from high school to college. 

Aguayo: For the mentoring program, we’ve had to consider how to best engage students virtually. It’s important to remember that students are not professionals who are used to being in Zoom meetings for hours per day. As schools have shifted to remote learning, we’ve been trying to replicate what districts are already doing. The challenge is they are pretty much all using different systems – whether Webex, Google, Remind, or Zoom – so we’ve had to be adaptable to learning how to use and best leverage each of those tools. We’ve also looked to some of our partners, such as E4 Youth, who already have long-term experience using technology in this way. Our ultimate goal is to make it as easy as possible for our students to connect, even if that means putting in the extra leg work on our end. 

Partnerships are at the core of each of the three components of your program: the research institute, the mentoring program, and the Consortium. Are there other organizations you partner with to extend the collective impact of your work?

Campos: Much of our work is possible because we are housed in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT Austin. This gives us access to the university administration to build buy-in for our work, it qualifies us for funding opportunities to grow our program, and it provides us with a network of other organizations working towards a shared mission of improving access and opportunity for students of color. In particular, we collaborate with a number of other organizations on campus that support Black female and Latina students, and we engage in programming with other initiatives in the region, such as the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, My Brother’s Keeper chapters across Texas, the Communities in Schools’ XY-Zone program, LaunchPad, and of course, the more than 25 institutional partners who make up our Consortium. 

These partnerships enable us to scale the impact of our work while, at the same time, being thoughtful about our own capacity. There are a lot of issues around scalability when you’re talking about people. We would love to be able to triple the number of schools we partner with to reach more students, but that would require additional mentor capacity. If we expand caseloads for our mentors, they may not be able to build the same relationships with kids. You have to keep the humanity and connection in the work. Without that connection, you’ll lose a lot of the heart and soul of why you’re in the work in the first place.