BLMI student Shadiq Williams

When Nicole St. Clair, director of the Black and Latino Male Initiative (BLMI) at Brooklyn College, first heard about the $99,000 gift the Kurz Family Foundation made in February, she was beyond excited. “I was shocked,” she says. “I could not stop thinking about the wonderful opportunities the gift would allow — better technology for our students, peer mentoring programs and a chance to bring more role models on campus as speakers. I was so grateful.”

At a time when college graduation rates of black and Latino males lag behind those of white males and all female undergraduates nationally, the gift, one of several the Kurz Family Foundation has given to the initiative, is viewed as especially vital. 

Not only do fewer black and Latino males pursue higher education, many who do start college never finish. A 2010 report by the American Council on Education found that six years after matriculation, the college graduation rate for black men was 35 percent, compared to 46 percent for Hispanic men and 59 percent for white men.  Those figures are especially relevant at Brooklyn College, where the number of black and Latino male students is considerably higher than at other senior campuses of the City University of New York system. 

“We could not maintain our commitment to diversity in any kind of meaningful way without this program and the generous donation by the Kurz family,” St. Clair explains.

That longstanding commitment has yielded some impressive outcomes. For the past several years, more black students have graduated annually from Brooklyn College than from any other college in the state of New York. And Brooklyn College is one of the top 40 schools in the United States from which Latinos earn bachelor’s degrees in education.

In many ways, the BLMI, which began at the college in 2006, has contributed to those success rates. The initiative’s goal has always been to increase the number of black and Latino males who enroll in and graduate from the college. To achieve that goal, it addresses just about every aspect of the students’ lives. In the strictly academic realm, it provides peer mentoring, tutoring and access to an all-purpose writing tutor. In the more personal realm, it offers seminars that encourage self-awareness and self-esteem. “Am I Smart Enough to Get an ‘A’?” was the subject of one recent BLMI seminar; “What Positive Contributions Have Black/Latino Men Historically Made to This Society?” was another. 

One part of BLMI’s objective is simply to coax students to use the available resources. “Many black and Latino males are used to doing things on their own,” St. Clair says. “The initiative lets them know it’s all right to ask for help.” 

Another part is to inform them of programs of which they might not be aware, such as internships or opportunities to study abroad, and to underscore the importance of utilizing those programs. If finances are a problem, a BLMI adviser can steer a student to a likely source of aid, and streamline the process of obtaining it.

“Recently, we had a seminar about studying abroad, and about the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship — how to get financial assistance for graduate school,” says Jeffrey Saint Gilles, 24, a transfer student from Florida who first heard about the initiative from a cousin. “Normally, students would have to seek out that kind of information on their own — assuming they even knew it existed. Fortunately, we have people who bring that information to us.” 

When Saint Gilles initially applied for his current work-study job, which makes it possible for him to remain in college, he was turned down. “I missed the deadline because I didn’t know there was one,” he says. With the help of St. Clair and Lawrence Patterson, BLMI’s workshop and mentor coordinator, he resubmitted his application and was hired. Saint Gilles now works in a neighborhood child center, which dovetails nicely with his psychology major. “No matter what school you are at, there’s always red tape; we’re able to cut through that,” St. Clair states.

Perhaps more important than skills and information is the sense of community BLMI imparts, enabling members to feel both distinct from, and a part of, the larger college community. That sense of belonging can combat the anomie that causes so many students to disengage. “On any campus, anywhere, in fact, it’s always a struggle to find people with whom you can connect — it doesn’t just happen strolling along campus,” says Shadiq Williams, 19, a sophomore studying computer science. Thanks to the initiative, however, students need only step into 3309A James Hall, newly christened the BLMI Commons, and let the connections happen. “Even if I’m not there on official business, I always stop in to say hi,” Williams says.

Students are also likely to find role models at BLMI. Periodically, its popular Mouth of the Phoenix Lecture Series features black and Latino faculty members and administrators who describe their youthful experiences and explain how they got where they are today. Their stories show that success is possible. “When students see that, they start to believe it might be possible for themselves,” St. Clair says. 

A key name behind the Kurz Family Foundation gift is that of its director, Herbert Kurz ’41, founder of the highly successful Presidential Life Insurance Company. Having attended the college during the Great Depression, Kurz is no stranger to the struggles to obtain an education. During his college days, he walked to campus from home rather than ride a bus or trolley, which cost seven cents (a substantial sum for him). 

The significance of his family’s recent donation is not lost on the students who benefit from it. “What BLMI is doing, with the help of the foundation, is vital,” Saint Gilles says. “It’s not something we take for granted.”