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.
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