LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — JaCaleb Smith worked at a trampoline park during his first semester studying chemical engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Along with his summer job at Home Depot, his earnings went to pay for college, but he still wondered if he should — or could — stay in school.
“I was paying out of pocket,” the 19-year-old said. “It makes people want to stop. Honestly, I did. I had to figure out where the money would come from.”
Carl Whitlock, a sophomore at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, understands this feeling. As a freshman, he worked part-time at his church as well as two nonprofits, Broaden Horizons and Teach One to Lead One.
“I was always trying to figure out how to pay for books,” he said.
Whitlock was able to quit one after the fall semester to put more time toward school and extracurriculars, because he’d saved up enough for spring classes. He would just have to figure out next steps after that.
Those next steps became crystal clear this summer when he learned all of his tuition for the next three years will be covered as part of the R.F. Lewis Scholars program.
The University of Louisiana System initiative aims to enhance the educational experience for exemplary Black male students like Whitlock and Smith. They are among 18 sophomores — two selected from each of the UL System’s nine member institutions — who make up the inaugural cohort of scholars.
The R.F. Lewis Scholars program focuses on academics, social advancement and community service and includes covering tuition for the next three years, taking a major load off students and their families.
“When you take the money aspect out of it, it makes everything so much easier,” Smith said. “It takes the pressure off.”
‘I FINALLY FELT LIKE COLLEGE WAS FOR ME’
But it’s not just about the money. The program also includes a partnership with the Universities of Louisiana Management & Leadership Institute and a service learning project; an annual focused retreat and academic, social and professional mentorship from business, community and university leaders; and research projects and a study abroad opportunity in their junior year.
Being selected for such opportunities has been affirming, the young men said.
“I finally felt like college was for me,” Whitlock said. “I’m the first in my family to make it to sophomore year of college.”
It also has been motivating. John Edmonds IV, a geomatics major at Nicholls State University, said the program “gives you that drive to keep going.”
“I feel like I can’t slack off,” said Da’Voznik Armstrong, an engineering major at Louisiana Tech University. “It’ll keep me pushing forward and be the best I can be.”
As the first group of R.F. Lewis Scholars, they feel the pressure to set a good example for those who come after them. Fundraising is underway with a goal to raise money needed for the first three cohorts by June 2022.
“As the first group, we’re setting the tone for the whole program,” said the Destrehan native. “They’re expecting great things from us. That’ll make me go even harder in school and harder in life.”
This is a purpose of the program — to push Louisiana students to be their best and, in turn, push Louisiana to be better.
“This program has the potential to be transformational not only for the scholars but for the state of Louisiana,” System President Jim Henderson said. “As the program grows with annual cohorts, we will cultivate new Black male leaders for the state of Louisiana and beyond.”
NURTURING ‘THE DIVERSITY WE NEED TO CHANGE THE WORLD’
JaDeric Talbert, an education major at Grambling State, came to the scholars program through another one aimed at minority male students, “Call Me MiSTER,” which stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role models.
Black male educators make up only 2% of the teaching workforce nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and Call Me MiSTER strives to change that by increasing the pool of available teachers from a more diverse background.
Such programs are crucial to cultivating “the diversity we need to change the world,” Talbert said.
“Programs like these give people opportunities they don’t normally have,” he said. “It gives a better overview of what you can do when you put in the work.”
Initiatives like this increase positive minority representation, and the scholars said they feel a responsibility to set an example for future cohorts.
“Black people, and males especially, we’re not shown that we can achieve great things,” Whitlock said. “I make a point to mentor Black males around the Monroe area.”
Data show that Black male students in the UL System are completing degrees at much lower rates than their counterparts. Of the 16,800 degrees awarded systemwide in 2019, only 6% went to Black men, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents. The R.F. Lewis Scholars program is an effort to improve such figures.
Talbert called R.F. Lewis Scholars a “big blessing and something I don’t take lightly.”
“To me it is another opportunity to help me help others,” the Arcadia native said. “This will offer international travel experience, pay tuition in full, more professional development training with an annual leadership retreat. That will help me become a better, mentor, better teacher, better leader for the next generation.”
‘THEY’RE GOING TO BE MY BACKBONE’
With students coming from schools across the state, most of them had never met before. Already they’ve built a bond they expect to help them in the years to come.
“I can already tell they’re going to be my backbone, a good support system,” Smith said.
Edmonds said the group has become a “brotherhood.”
“It’s encouraging to have people around you who want to see you win,” the New Orleans native said.
Making these connections outside of their hometowns or universities could help them find mentors in their field and even internship opportunities, and as Smith said, “internships lead to jobs.”
“I know I’m just a sophomore in college, but if I can make those relationships now, it’ll pay off now and definitely when I’m out of college,” Smith said.
Networking has been a learning experience for Armstrong from Shreveport, but he’s been trying to embrace it.
“This is new for me; I’m introverted,” Armstrong said. “I’ve met different people. It’s opening up new horizons, new connections. It’s been very inspiring.
“So far we’re like glue.”