Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.
He took his own life.
Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.
He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.
Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.
Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.
Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.
Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.
Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.
Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.
The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.
Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.
Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.
May Kalief rest in peace.
Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
Virginia prosecutors have dropped charges against Martese Johnson, a black student at the University of Virginia, The Washington Post reported. When Johnson was arrested in March, photographs showing him bloodied after police officers detained him outraged many who saw the incident as an example of discriminatory policing, and set off a furor on campus and beyond. Johnson was stopped after he tried to enter a bar.
The state's attorney issued this statement about the decision to drop charges: “Upon review of the evidence resulting from a thorough and independent criminal investigation conducted by the Virginia State Police, the commonwealth reached a conclusion that the interest of justice and the long-term interest of the Charlottesville community are best served by using this case as an opportunity to engage ordinary citizens, law enforcement officers and public officials in constructive dialogue concerning police and citizen relationships in a diverse community.”
The University of Oxford's last all-male unit -- St. Benet's Hall -- decided Thursday to start admitting female students, BBC reported. Officials said that the college, which is small, held off in the past for practical reasons, such as the lack of enough housing. But with a new building to house students, St. Benet's will make the shift.
United Airlines on Wednesday issued a formal public apology to Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, for the way a flight attendant treated her. The airline's move came amid widespread criticism -- including from Northwestern's president -- for a flight attendant refusing to give Ahmad an unopened can of Diet Coke, saying that it could be used as a weapon. On social media and elsewhere, the case has become an illustration of bias faced by Muslims. United's statement Wednesday noted that the flight was operated by a company contracted by United, not United itself.
“While United did not operate the flight, Ms. Ahmad was our customer and we apologize to her for what occurred on the flight. After investigating this matter, United has ensured that the flight attendant, a Shuttle America employee, will no longer serve United customers,” the statement said. “United does not tolerate behavior that is discriminatory -- or that appears to be discriminatory -- against our customers or employees. All of United’s customer-facing employees undergo annual and recurrent customer service training, which includes lessons in cultural awareness. Customer-facing employees for Shuttle America also undergo cultural sensitivity training, and United will continue to work with all of our partners to deliver service that reflects United’s commitment to cultural awareness.”
Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, has written to United Airlines, urging the airline to apologize for the way a flight attendant treated the university's Muslim chaplain, The Chicago Tribune reported. In a case that has attracted much anger on social media, a flight attendant declined to give the chaplain an unopened can of Diet Coke, saying that unopened cans could be used as a weapon. Others have noted that the airline has given many people (including one visible on that flight) unopened cans, and suggested that the response to Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern, was based on her being visible as a Muslim because of her veil.
Schapiro's letter to United said, “Tahera Ahmad is the Muslim chaplain at Northwestern, one of the few female Muslim chaplains in the country, and an esteemed leader in our community…. Yet she was treated with a complete lack of respect. …The extraordinarily unprofessional and humiliating treatment of one of our community members is shockingly disappointing.”
United officials said that the airline has apologized to Ahmad and will respond to Schapiro, who said that United has not done enough to apologize. “Chaplain Ahmad should receive a more formal apology from United, along with assurances that United will train its staff so that she, and others, are never again subjected to such discrimination on a United flight,” Schapiro wrote.
Inside Higher Ed is pleased to release today “Diversity in the Student Body,” our latest print-on-demand booklet. Articles focus on demographic and legal issues -- and the strategies used by different institutions. You may download the free booklet here. And you may sign up here for a free webinar on the booklet's themes, to be held Tuesday, June 30, at 2 p.m. Eastern.
The board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted to change the name of Saunders Hall, which since 1920 has honored William L. Saunders, a Reconstruction-era leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Board members said that they believed it was a mistake for the board in 1920 to say that Saunders's Klan ties were worthy of honoring. The building will be renamed Carolina Hall.
Saint Louis University has moved a statue, “Where the Rivers Meet,” that for decades has stood in front of a building that is now a dormitory. The sculpture depicts a 19th-century Jesuit missionary, the Reverend Pierre-Jean DeSmet, with two Native Americans. The pose has been criticized for suggesting that Native Americans welcomed Europeans' efforts to convert them and take their land. During the post-Ferguson protests on campus, which attracted many from off the campus, some noticed and criticized the statue (see image at right).
Clayton Berry, a spokesperson for the university, said via email: “Some students and faculty raised concerns about the statue in that location. The decision was made to relocate the statue to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, where it will be added to and housed with the Collection of the Western Jesuit Missions. Taking up an entire floor of the museum, this collection features artwork and historical artifacts that illustrate the frontier experience of various Jesuit missionaries, including Father DeSmet, in the 1800s.”