Black, Brown And College Bound: On The Road to Success

Ishmael Lopez, 21, is a student at Hillsborough Community College (HCC). He grew up in North Tampa, attended Tampa Bay Technical High School and aspires to be an electrical engineer in the U.S. Air Force.

Java Royal, 21, is also a student at HCC. He grew up in East Tampa, attended Jefferson High School and hopes to one day work in the head office of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Some would characterize their goals as lofty, especially for two young men who started life in difficult circumstances. But Lopez and Royal are determined to achieve as individuals and to smash through adversity and stereotypes that sometimes hold back those less motivated.

Black, Brown And College Bound

Royal sits outside a Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tampa's Westshore Boulevard before heading to his second job at Aeropostale in International Plaza. He's chatting with 83 Degrees about the importance of an event he's been looking forward to for a year: the annual Black, Brown and College Bound Summit February 12-15 at the Tampa Marriott Waterside. This year's theme: "Setting the Record Straight: Demystifying the Perception of African American and Latino Males in Higher Education.'' The keynote speaker: Basketball Great Earvin "Magic'' Johnson.

"I just hope people coming [to the event] are looking forward to networking and to help not only themselves, but their communities,'' says Royal. "Because not only do we need better leaders, we need better people in general.''

The thrust of the summit is to encourage African-American and Latino males to push through perceived obstacles and walk away from college with a degree that is worthy of their aspirations. Joining Magic Johnson is a panel of national experts and leaders who have the data and experience to prove that persistence pays off. Break-out sessions address the unique issues that minority males face.

Overcoming Adversity

Lopez says he feels that Latino males are often ignored and perceived as underachievers. "It's about breaking the stereotype and motivating other Latinos to focus on their goals, never give up and never settle for less.''

Lopez had a roadside view of another path he could have chosen while growing up in East Tampa.

"One of my neighbors has been a drug dealer since I can remember,'' he says. "I saw different cars driving around, pulling up to his house all the time. As a kid I didn't get to play outside with other kids. My parents were strict about friends, about school. They sent us to school near MacDill (Air Force Base), away from all that.''

Royal says he believes lacking a father or an admirable male role model hinders African-American kids in his neighborhood from realizing their potential.

"A lot of these kids don't have a father, or their father was maybe in their life for a little while but not enough to give them guidance. So I get that there's a lot of kids not wanting to try. Their parents aren't there to push them to do their homework because they're trying to just survive. But I want to show that you don't have to let where you come from stop you. You don't have to be a failure because that's not what life is about. Life is about progressing and hopefully helping others progress as well.

"I see the next generation of kids coming up playing outside,'' he continues. "And I just wish the best for them -- that they won't fall under the same umbrella as my friends did. I want to be that example to say, 'Hey, I'm from the same area you are. I want it better.' I want to be that leading example. They can say, 'I can do a whole lot better because I see what Java’s doing'.''

Coming Up, Giving Back

Both Royal and Lopez are actively involved in campus groups dedicated to helping them and their male peers succeed. Royal is president of Hillsborough Community College's Collegiate 100 chapter, a national organization dedicated to nurturing and enhancing young African-American men's growth and development. Lopez is an HCC Hope Scholar, benefitting from a pilot program that provides individual tutoring and personal mentoring, financial help, seminars, college tours and four-year college transfer opportunities to Latino and African-American male students.

"College 100's main goal is to mentor other students,'' explains Royal. "Right now we are at 11 different high schools giving back to the minorities who are at risk. We kind of guide them through high school; talk to them about the SAT, ACT, saving their pennies early -- every little step toward college. And when they get there, they'll know where to go and who to talk to and hopefully they'll want to do the same for another youth under them once they get to college.
"We've been working with the Tampa Heights Civic Association with its afterschool program,'' he adds. "There's a church that we're helping to refurbish so the kids will have somewhere to go to after school. That's set to be completed this summer.''

Lopez has worked on that project, too, helping with the plumbing and installing sprinklers. He also referees youth soccer games. "Just little things mean a lot. Something as big as that church project, you need a lot of money. I felt good doing some work on that. The feeling of helping others, it inspires me to become more successful so that I can give more.''

He credits the time spent with his dad for helping him identify his true passion, electrical engineering. "My dad's a handyman who does a lot of construction,'' Lopez explains. "Working with him as a child I saw a path for electrical work. For me it was interesting.''

Moving Forward

Both will receive their Associate of Arts degree in May. Royal has applied to the College of Sports Management at University of Florida. Lopez plans to earn his electrical engineering degree from the University of South Florida before lending his talents to the U.S. Air Force.

And while both see themselves fully succeeding, each feels that more can be done to help minorities succeed. "It needs to start by people acknowledging that there is a very small number of minorities graduating college and becoming successful,'' says Lopez. "Programs like Hope Scholars helped me. We need more programs like it. Seeing successful Hispanics that have the same background truly motivates people to strive for more.''

Royal sees early intervention as the means to more successful endings. "I think a little bit of the solution is the schools,'' he says. I'd say we could use some more after-school programs and tutoring for students who might need the extra help. Because if a student feels like they can't do something, a lot of times they don't ask for help. Their grades reflect that they're not doing well and it's like, 'OK, well, you just have to move along.' They don't get that help that they need.''

But Royal also sees hope. "I've seen schools recently changed from a D school to a B school. By seeing that happen, I know that there is some progression happening. But parents have to get on board and want to help their kids get that guidance that they need. So I think it takes a little bit of not only the schools but the parents as well. Because at the end of the day, we're all one community. So they need to work together to better our kids' education and future.''
2014 Summit Takeaways

Small crowds of young men file out the doors of the Marriott, stopping to pat a back with a parting handshake or engage in lively banter.
Lopez relates that he left the summit with the goal of pursuing mentoring opportunities for both himself and others.

"The first session was about how we students need a mentor and at the same time teaching the adults how to be an outstanding one,'' says Lopez. "I plan to find several mentors to guide me through my educational journey and also keep in mind the strong points on how to be a mentor so that I can begin giving back.

"A mentor is very important for those who don't have a solid foundation at home,'' he continues. "There was a quote I heard that said, 'Parents can't give what they don't have.' A lot of times that's in reference to [pursuing] a higher education. A mentor will help sharpen the goals of the mentee, keeping them on track, influencing, motivating and supporting them.''

Cesar Ramos' personal story particularly resonated with Lopez, whose family has so strongly influenced him.

"Mr. Ramos explained his struggle and said he eventually paid off his parents' house with his first check,'' he explains. "I thought it was touching and something I would do.''

The Road To Success

Magic Johnson provided insights for just how Lopez might go about doing so.

"Mr. Johnson thought about his future after basketball and decided to invest. Investment is another topic my parents impressed upon us, so I was able to relate. He invested his money in multiple businesses, which had to have been his smartest move.''

For Royal, it was the people who inspired him the most.

"Since this was second time attending the summit, the networking with these great leaders came much easier,'' Royal says. "I was able to get within arm's reach of Magic Johnson, who delivered a great message of "over delivering" in all that we do.
"Seeing the faces of the new attendees was a great thing as well, because they got to be around other individuals who wanted the same thing out of life as they did. And that is to reach the next level of their education and life.''
Black, Brown and College Bound speakers included Dr. Luis Ponjuan, a Texas A&M University Associate Professor; Dr. Damon Williams, Boys & Girls Club of America Vice President; Dawn Porter, Attorney and Filmmaker; Dr. Enrique Murillo, Jr., LEAD (Latino Education and Advocacy Days) Executive Director and Founder; Kionne McGhee, Florida State Representative; Alex Harris, Recording Artist and In Touch with the World CEO; and Cesar Ramos, pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The program is organized and presented by Hillsborough Community College under the auspices of the Equity and Special Programs office, led by Dr. Joan Holmes, Special Assistant to the President for Equity, Diversity and Special Programs; along with Barbara Cockfield, Program Manager, Equity, Diversity and Special Programs; Dr. Michael Odu, HOPE Faculty Coordinator; and Patrick Sneed, Coordinator of Programs.

Missy Kavanaugh-Carryer, a freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, FL, enjoys writing children's books, helping children and adults reach their creative potential and kayaking the waterways that surround the Tampa Bay region. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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