Andre Fields, left, and members of the ABO fraternity prepare for a leadership banquet at Grand Rapids Community College. Courtesy GRCC
After Jesse William Krewson Jr. got back from Afghanistan, he wanted to get an education in an effort to better help people.
But when the Grand Rapids Community College student would do homework, he would just “get stuck” and felt like he had a lack of resources.
He was ready to quit and get a factory job. A year and a half ago, he instead joined Alpha Beta Omega, a fraternity for African-American men at GRCC that has been helping its members find success in school.
That’s when he thought, “Hey, I don’t have to give up on this.”
Members of Alpha Beta Omega, a fraternity funded by the Wege Foundation, work with mentors on strategies for success in college, career and life. They have access to one-on-one tutoring, workshops, study tables, and math and writing groups.
Krewson now has two credits left at GRCC before he begins a master’s degree in divinity at Calvin College.
In 2011, only 5 percent of African-American male students graduated from GRCC after three years, compared to 15 percent of all students in the general GRCC population.
“It became a kind of campus emergency,” said Andre Fields, who started ABO.
That’s when school administrators reached out to Fields, a staff counselor who also was working on a doctorate degree focused on black males in higher education.
After brainstorming, they came up with a “relational learning” program.
“The research shows that black male programs that are effective nationally are the programs that involve relational learning, meaning that black males do better in academic settings when they have a relationship with someone that’s a part of the system that they may be in,” Fields said.
“It makes sense to me because, in America, black males are the most stigmatized portion of the population. And even worse than that are black male adolescents.”
So when the students come to college, where the population is predominately white, and they have to deal with “stereotypes of academic inferiority hovering around them in class,” he said it can get stressful.
This program not only offers a safe haven, Fields said, but also a community where the students can be reaffirmed and empowered.
Fields is one of three counselors who work in the program. The ABO students have their counselors’ cell phone numbers and can reach out with issues or problems.
The most common theme is the fear of failure. But with the support they get, Fields has seen some of that fear subside.
Many of the students who begin ABO were about to quit school, but they join the program and “get some hope” that they can succeed.
Dawyne Johnston joined ABO in May 2016, a semester after he began at GRCC.
He said the organization has allowed him to connect with “positive male role models” that hold him accountable for his work.
“When people come to community college, it’s like you focus on going to class and you’re not really focused on relationship or community,” he said. “An organization like this creates a sense of community.”
Johnston also appreciates the opportunities ABO provides, such as networking interviews.
He attended his first formal banquet through ABO with some other students, who all got etiquette training before attending.
Johnston recently was accepted to GVSU for its agriculture science program.
This semester, there are about 100 students in the program, which represents about 15 percent of the GRCC black male population, he said. Now that the group has picked up momentum, 20 students are graduating this year. It has typically been four or five each year, he said.
Academically, he said black males who are part of the program do “significantly better.”
According to statistics on the ABO website, the average black male finished 61 percent of his courses in 2015, while those in ABO finished 82 percent. Average GPA was 2.01 for the average black male student; 2.66 for ABO students. The fall-to-fall retention rate between 2012 and 2015 was 38 percent for black males, 50 percent for the general population and 75 percent for ABO students.
Of the approximately 200 students ABO has served over the past five years, 26 have graduated from GRCC. Another 28 have transferred to four-year institutions, including the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as Davenport, Cornerstone, Grand Valley State and Ferris State universities. Four of them have earned bachelor's degrees, and two are in graduate school.
For the first year, 25 new members are receiving jackets with an ABO crest at a special ceremony from 5:30-7:30 p.m., March 1, in the banquet rooms of the Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center, 151 Fountain St. NE.
Alyssa Hearin, of FOX 17, will host the event, and GRCC President Dr. Bill Pink will deliver the keynote address.
Fields said the jackets “promote a sense of unity, identity and professionalism” and foster “a sense of belonging, dignity and identity.”
Fields is working to spread the word about ABO and the students who come out of the program. With the way Grand Rapids is headed, he knows the area is in need of talent.
“There are a lot of talented guys, very intelligent men that have come through this pipeline,” he said. “I think these are the types of guys you want to keep in the community.”