As he came before the village elders on his knees to account for himself, the student struggled to find the words that would show exactly how much he had grown.
And then the student beside him reached out a hand to touch his arm, as if to say, “I’m here. You are not alone.”
On Saturday (July 30), 22 African-American students gathered before their family, friends and mentors to show the fruits of their labors, and the work of their teachers and a whole University.
But what the participants of the third class of West Virginia University’s Academic STARS (Students Achieving and Reaching Success) program really showed was that only together would they navigate the next four years successfully.
STARS is many things. It’s an English class. It’s team bonding. It’s college preparation. It’s a rite of passage. And in the three years it’s been at WVU, it’s been working.
You could see it in the glances, the laughter, the tears, the calls of “brother” and “sister.”
The fact that these students are engaged with their community and WVU is important because they, together with the rest of the African-American population at WVU, make up only 3.4 percent of the student body. Their numbers grow every year, but their challenges are still there. If you look at the statistics, black students are less likely to complete college than their white counterparts.
Like any freshmen, they can be swayed to give up, transfer because they feel they don’t belong and experience a general feeling of isolation.
That could have happened to Marlon Bourne, 18.
“I’m from Flint, Mich.,” he said. “So I would come in here, and I would know nobody.”
The medallion he wore around his neck at the STARS closing ceremony was an African Akan symbol that symbolized security.
That’s how he feels now, secure.
“I feel like it’s a family I can go to now, in addition to the family I already have,” he said. “And we’re a community now.
“I feel confident. I feel better than when I did before I came to this program.”
And Marlon’s mom feels better, too.
“One of the mentors told me, he said, ‘Mom, don’t worry, I’m going to take care of Marlon,’” his mother, Tamara Smith, said. “Do you know how rewarding that is for another kid to say, ‘We’re going to take care of your baby?’”
Marlon was going to attend an in-state school, but he later decided on WVU. So Tamara and her husband, Sylvester, took him to look at the campus. And they took him to orientation, and eight days later, they took him to STARS.
“I wanted the best for Marlon,” she said. “I wanted him to be absolutely, positively sure that’s what he wanted.”
And now she’s sure.
“I’m very confident, and I’m so confident because not only is it just him and the University, it’s him with a whole bunch of other friendships—with a family,” Smith said.
"30,000 are about to roll here in two weeks. You are 22 strong."
"Don't forget who you are."
"I hope to see all of you at graduation in four years."
-Parents and friends of STARS participants
Other parents felt the same way.
Anthony Grant, a civil engineer from Ranson, W.Va., was surprised at the ceremony where his daughter, Jenay, took a step into adulthood.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I’m proud of not only my daughter, but all the youth that were here, and it made me feel a lot better about WVU.”
For Jenay, an 18-year-old biology major, it was hard to be thrown together with 21 other students from across the country, but she now knows who to turn to in hard times.
“The most important thing for me was building a great community and finding out that we all have a purpose and our purpose is to work together, and that beyond that we each have our own individual purpose,” she said.
"I now know where I come from."
"I learned how great African-American people are, how great we have been, how great we can be."
Years ago, Patricia Mayfield had dropped off her oldest daughter at her dorm in North Carolina. And that was it.
She knew it was tough for her daughter.
But when her youngest child, LaToya, arrived at WVU in June for STARS, Patricia was glad there was something more for her baby.
“I think it’s helped her tremendously; I really do,” she said. “It’s gotten her even more excited about school and also helped her to feel comfortable.”
LaToya could have gone to college closer to her home of Richmond, Va., but she chose WVU after receiving information about the school since the 9th Grade. It had everything she wanted in being out-of-state, having a good engineering program and offering club basketball.
Mayfield said WVU is offering her daughter a multicultural experience that will prepare her for a career of working with different kinds of people. It also brings her closer to her ancestral past through STARS.
LaToya and the rest of the STARS read “A Gathering of Old Men” in English class. They had mandatory study time. They learned about the brutal treatment their ancestors had faced in a way most of them hadn’t before. They heard from African-American leaders who told them how easy it would be for them to be split apart, of the temptations to slack off, of the people who would tear them down.
At the closing ceremony, LaToya told the gathering that she had grown spiritually through the experience and her mindset had changed.
And her classmates said similar things. They knelt as a group before a panel of four elders selected from the group of family and friends. They answered questions about their growth and their goals while wearing ancestral masks, unaware of their families smiling, crying and snapping photos.
They said things that were raw, clear and poetic.
“It taught me that I have other people to help me. Everything I need is already right beside me.”
“I’m not the only African-American student coming into college that has a greater chance of graduating.”
“I always have them. They’re here for me. I’m not alone.”
Marjorie Fuller, director of the Center for Black Culture and Research, brought the program from Kent State University in Ohio three years ago. The first year had 15 students attending. And that number has continued to grow.
Most of the students are continuing their education at WVU. Ellis Lambert, a first-year participant who is now going into his junior year, has joined a fraternity, been a governor in the Student Government Association, led the Paul Robeson/Mahalia Jackson Choir, formed the first NAACP chapter on campus, joined the entrepreneurship club and intends to join a service fraternity this year.
“It just taught me to embrace who I am and my place in the community,” Lambert said of STARS.
And he believes this group of students is even more prepared than he and his cohort.
His attendance at the ceremony is an example of how STARS is more than just a summer. Each class goes on to attend 10 hours a week of mandatory study tables, cultural activities at the Center for Black Culture and a trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, as well as mentor the next class of STARS students.
Fuller sees a turning point for the program ahead.
“What I saw today, it let me know that the work that we’re doing is moving people in the right direction, moving our kids in the right direction,” she said.
“And that it is supported by administration the way that it is gives me hope that we will be able to expand the program and include more and more students each year in what is a life-altering experience. We hope to take it to the next level next year.”
Fuller presided at the ceremony with her daughter, Chelsea Fuller, standing a few feet from her side. Chelsea completed the program in 2006 at Kent State and graduated from WVU this year.
Across the room, her other daughter Takara Robinson, spoke as part of the current STARS class of her desire to become a cardiothoracic surgeon one day.
Before the day ended Fuller admonished the class not to leave without telling her goodbye.
She knows what it’s like. She’s a STARS mom, too.
By Diana Mazzella
CONTACT: Marjorie Fuller, director, WVU Center for Black Culture and Research
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.