By STEVEN NALLEY
Samuel Thomas Nichols remembers being unable to intercept the grades mailed to his home after his first semester of college and having to hear from his parents about those grades.
Today, Nichols is a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, known locally as part of the second wave of African Americans to play football for Mississippi State University. Back then, he said, he was a freshman faced with five Ds and an F, and a father who did not see the point in Nichols attending college if he did not make the grades needed to graduate. So, he said, little by little, he improved.
“I made the dean’s list once, twice, and I said, ‘Dean’s list? Let’s go to the President’s list,’” Nichols said. “That was the rest of my academic career behind the scenes that nobody really knew about. It all starts with you, the individual.”
Nichols was one of several speakers invited to MSU’s Colvard Student Union Friday for “Human Capital: Enhancing the Academic Achievement of Men of Color,” a conference aimed at improving graduation rates and post-collegiate success among minority males at MSU and other American universities.
Jerry Gilbert, MSU provost and executive vice president, said African American males consistently have a 20 percent lower graduation rate at MSU than white peers, and similar figures appear at universities across the country. In light of this statistic, Gilbert said another statistic which perplexed him was the fact that retention rates from freshman year to sophomore year are virtually identical for black males and white males.
“There’s a difference; something happens after the sophomore year,” Gilbert said. “What are we not doing after the freshman year that we need to be doing?”
Nichols said the inequality issues reflected in graduation rates at MSU and other universities are about more than race and more than universities. He said people need to stop talking about race and start talking about treating people with respect.
“It’s not just a Mississippi State problem; it’s a world problem,” Nichols said. “There are two things that people deserve. No. 1: They deserve great leadership. Being a great leader is not hollering, screaming and giving directions. You must serve the people that you lead. No. 2: First and foremost, everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. There are young men and women from 83 different countries on this campus. Really, this whole thing is colorblind at the end. I should be able to go to anybody on this campus to get help.”
Nichols said he believes it is a waste to attend a university and not obtain a degree; he wants to see students as competitive with each other concerning grades as they are with other universities concerning athletics. He also said families play an important role in mentoring students.
“This uniform you see on me does not reflect who I am as a man,” Nichols said. “My parents gave that to me, and of course, my God (gave that to me). The best thing your parents ever gave you was your name. I would tell any young man or young woman, ‘Don’t embarrass the name.’”
The conference also featured a panel on data trends for minorities in higher education, after which panelists answered questions.
One of the panelists was Lorenzo L. Esters, vice president for student success and enrollment at Kentucky State University. Esters said he, too, believes families play an important role in their children’s success at universities, and they must be recruited to that end while children are still young.
“I think one of the things we have to look at nationally is how we work with K-12,” Esters said. “We have to think about recruiting the student and the parents for many populations, particularly minorities. The old model in recruitment is recruiting a high school senior. Some talk about middle school; I’m of the opinion we need to talk about second and third grade. I think one of the things we have to do ... is recruit the entire family, informing them about financial aid (and) informing them about what it means to prepare for college.”
Another panelist, MSU mechanical engineering assistant professor Oliver Myers, said he strongly encourages students to choose mentors in their career fields they can build relationships with after graduation, regardless of demographic.
“There is a discussion in my class where I tell the students, ‘You’re going to have to look at various people as mentors. Some are at the same level as you, but you’re going to have to have the confidence to talk to people ... that are above your level,” Myers said.