Misconceptions get challenged when inner-city scholars become small-town campus leaders
Question: What do you call over 60 first-generation college students attending twin private colleges in northern, small-town Minnesota?
Scholars. Or, to be more specific, I-LEAD Scholars.
I-LEAD, which stands for Intercultural Leadership, Education and Development Fellowship, is a student fellowship program aimed at honing and housing some of the most talented first-generation college students who have demonstrated significant leadership skills during high school.
Providing financial assistance, personal mentoring, corporate seminars, service-learning projects, and intentional community, I-LEAD is entering its fifth academic year and coming into its own.
The students are paired into cohorts of 15 per academic year, 60 total. The program is constantly evolving, constantly growing and improving upon the previous year. The most recent cohort nearly doubled in size, raising the total population from 60 to 76 members.
What began as a pipeline for first-generation inner-city students at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in the St. Cloud region of the state (about an hour and half northwest of the Twin Cities) has slowly morphed into a society of immensely diverse, productive and gifted student leaders in their college communities.
But the word used most often by the students themselves is not “society,” but “family.”
Out of the original first cohort that just graduated from St. John’s or St. Benedict (the former is a historically all-men’s institution, the latter historically for women, but the students share the same classes), three agreed to share their stories with the Spokesman-Recorder, being from the Cities themselves.
Their names are Joal Reeves, Mary Deputie and Emmanuel McDonald. Reeves and Deputie are first-cohort graduates, while McDonald is a member of the second cohort and a senior at St. John’s.
“It was not a group I was ashamed to be a part of,” says Reeves of her I-LEAD experience. A South Minneapolis native, she speaks of the program as one with a treasure of memories and stories. “We came in as a family and had a lot of curiosity. Eventually we were able to shape the program for others [after us]. It made a difference, and we stuck with it.”
Reeves tells how I-LEAD helped sharpen her calling for activism and social justice in inner-city communities as a peace studies major. While engaged in community service and attending the I-LEAD seminars, Reeves found an outlet for another passion of hers: reducing gang violence.
“I decided I was really passionate about gang violence,” she says. “That it was something I could do to help my community once I returned.” After graduating, Reeves plans on serving in AmeriCorps in Minneapolis, a two-year commitment that would buttress her ultimate dream of starting her own nonprofit organization in gang prevention.
While Reeves’ activism is aimed at young adults and pre-teens, Mary Deputie’s commitment is to children. A native of St. Paul who gradated last month in elementary education and intends to become a teacher, she was encouraged to apply to I-LEAD while a high school student.
She was reluctant at first. “There really wasn’t a lot of diversity [at St. Benedict],” admits Deputie, “and the whole experience put me out of my comfort zone.” Eventually, though, the camaraderie with the cohort made it easier for Deputie to adjust, as it did for many of the students from inner-city backgrounds.
“[In the beginning] we weren’t really accepted in the classrooms,” confesses Deputie about the social impact many of the first-cohort students of color had on the two college campuses, which were predominately White. “There were a lot of doubts about our capabilities. But over the years, I-LEAD encouraged us to branch out… We took up leadership roles [within the student body] to prove ourselves, [to show] that we were a college crowd.”
And that’s exactly what many of the I-LEAD scholars did, eventually changing and challenging the misperceptions many of the campus’ White and non-inner city students may have had of the program and its cohorts.
“That’s what leaders do,” says Program Director BernaDette Wilson. “They get involved. They have talent, and we brought it out of them.”
One such student leader is Emmanuel McDonald, senior and biopsychology major at St. John’s. A native of northern New Jersey, McDonald is also the college’s first African American student body president. He is quick to point out that it wasn’t just the campus’ White students who had attitudes that needed changing, but students of color as well.
“It’s very easy to think that everyone thinks like you, but it’s very important that you learn how to interact with everyone,” McDonald observes. When asked what prompted him to attend St. John’s from such a culturally diverse background, he cites I-LEAD as one of the major factors.
McDonald wanted to encounter new experiences and perspectives and further develop his innate leadership skills, and through I-LEAD he succeeded. “I know that whatever situation you put me in, I can get around,” he says, “whether in the rural or the city.”
Indeed, the students interviewed all seemed brimming with passion and purpose, as if the program had instilled in them a sense of unyielding endurance and sophistication to tackle many of life’s challenges. Of the 15 that began the cohort in 2005, 13 have graduated or soon will — a phenomenal retention rate for inner-city students of color compared with most other universities.
All of the graduates have committed to further enhancing their personal and professional goals, with many of them pursuing graduate school and community service projects. And, they have established a family away from family that they will more than likely carry with them forever.
Wilt Hodges welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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