When 80 young men gather at Central Michigan University later this week, they won't share much in common. Some will be CMU students, others will come from nearby colleges and from high schools in Michigan in cities like Flint and Detroit. They will have different levels of academic achievement; different social and economic backgrounds; and different religions, interests and ideologies.
What they will share is powerful: a desire to promote leadership and mentorship and to reshape the national narrative about young men of color.
CMU's GameChangers conference is a one-day event focused on empowering historically underrepresented minority male students to become leaders on campus and within their communities.
Reshaping the narrative about men of color
Cyrus Stewart is a graduate student from Seattle, Washington, studying higher education administration at CMU. He came from a university that did not offer targeted programs for underrepresented minorities, and he was curious about their impact here.
Young women of color were represented in leadership roles in many areas across campus, but Stewart noticed one group missing.
"I found that many of our driven male students of color are comfortable being involved on campus but are hesitant to be leaders," he said. For many students, choosing to step into leadership is a big stretch and one that requires support, encouragement and guidance.
The idea for a one-day intensive training conference had been bouncing around in the minds of the assistant directors of the Multicultural Academic Student Services office for nearly two years. Then, following a March 2 domestic violence incident at CMU, the team felt it was more important than ever to shine a light on the many positive achievements of men of color and the opportunities for them to be more involved.
As an advisor for one of CMU's National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities and facilitator for the Men About Change mentoring program, Stewart knew right where to start.
"Now is the time to take back control of the narrative and show ourselves and our peers that we truly are leaders," he said.
"It's hard to be what you can't see"
When Julio Velasco first came to CMU from Chicago, he was the first person in his family to attend college. He had no one at home to help him prepare for what to expect during his first weeks as a student, and he was unsure how to plug into campus life.
When he arrived and didn't see many men of color leading student organizations, it made him feel uncertain about getting involved. It's hard to be what you can't see, he said.
"The Hispanic population on campus was already fairly small, and it was challenging to find role models who looked like me," he said.
He later connected with powerful mentors through the student success center in the Towers residence halls and the Multicultural Academic Student Services office. The relationships he formed with those mentors reshaped his college experience. He received the encouragement he needed to try new things and take on challenges that had previously seemed impossible — such as leading the efforts for GameChangers.
"It is difficult to achieve a goal when you have never had someone to encourage you or a mentor to guide you. With both Men About Change and GameChangers, we are providing a space where students can talk about the issues they face and provide and receive mentorship. Our end goal is to provide young men with resources and connections to work toward their goals," he said.
Velasco is a Multicultural Advancement scholarship recipient now in his senior year. He will soon complete a degree in sociology with a minor in philosophy. He also has earned the cultural competency certificate. Velasco said he joined the GameChangers planning team because he wanted to leave something powerful behind at CMU to help future students.
"No matter their background, they can be successful. No matter what they look like, they can be successful. We want to showcase leaders who look like them — and who have done well — and have them tell us how they did it," Velasco said.
Starting a conversation about mental health
Sophomore Lawrence Lyons, a sociology major with a concentration in criminal justice from Detroit, said the idea of self care wasn't often discussed in his high school.
Today, it's top of mind as he prepares for the conference.
Many students face increasing stress as they navigate tuition costs, juggle school and work schedules, build personal and professional relationships, and begin their job search. Stress, even related to positive experiences, can affect students' experiences at CMU, Lyons said.
Lyons has been working with conference presenters who will cover mental health and reaching out to high schools to encourage younger students to attend the conference.
"Part of taking control of your story is taking care of yourself. Mental health is not something that most students are thinking about, but it's an important part of life," he said.