California State University, Long Beach
Students celebrate during the Pan-African cultural commencement celebration.

Eliminating Barriers to a College Education

Portrait of Dr. Brandon Gamble
Dr. Brandon Gamble uses non-traditional methods to encourage African Americans to pursue higher education and teaching careers.
Portrait Dr. Edwin Achola
Dr. Edwin Achola helped develop the African American Mentoring Program that ensures necessary support and resources for success. Photos by Trang Le

“I have a dream.” Those four famous words uttered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 sparked a movement that still resonates today as African Americans and people of all races and colors continue to seek equal opportunities to discover what the “American Dream” means to them.
For former Long Beach State Associate Professor Dr. Brandon Gamble and Assistant Professor Dr. Edwin Achola  of the Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling department, the opportunity to pursue higher education is a giant leap along the path to self-realization. Together, they work to increase awareness among African Americans that college is not only a viable option, but it can also offer a familiar, supportive culture where they can thrive.

“We want to do everything we can to help recruit but definitely retain and graduate minority students so they can go back to their communities and do meaningful work,” said Gamble, whose research agenda focuses on African American students and their college readiness, access and retention.

Gamble, who now serves as Dean of Student Success at Oakwood University, began his research looking at the concept of social capital networks. He wanted to explore what program leaders do to form productive, beneficial relationships with students and to determine if those programs are instrumental to helping students become college-ready.

His work led him to interview influential leaders with Kappa League, a youth development program offered through Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity’s “Guide Right” initiative. He also reached out to the African Male Achievers Network (A-MAN), a program utilizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) projects as a motivational tool to advance educational achievement among minority students.

“When I first talked with these leaders, I was just thinking maybe they knew a few people or somebody had some money,” Gamble said. “Sure, there were a few people like that, but it wasn’t a lot of money … it was more about people who they knew who could help them think through things or provide in-kind services, but it also just gives them a lot of confidence and determination.”

Gamble said he learned how to recruit from that experience and applied it to his own version of “Guide Right” that he was running at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach. He continues to use that wisdom today to encourage minority students to pursue higher education at Long Beach State, where fall 2016 enrollment included more than 1,600 African Americans, or roughly four percent of the student population.

“Social capital is really about being able to call in resources and make connections,” explains Gamble. “One of the basics I use is to ask students, ‘Who do we know who’s already doing what you want to do? Let me connect you with them.’ It’s that kind of cycle I’m hoping to create and grow here … to have alumni from our local high schools attend (Long Beach State), matriculate through a credentialed program and even graduate school, and then go back to their communities to become teachers and encourage and inspire the next generation.”

Gamble isn’t alone in his use of more non-traditional recruitment efforts. He is joined by Achola in pursuing alternative ways of recruiting and supporting students and teachers of color.

Students celebrate their graduation
Increasing resources and connections have enabled more African American students to graduate and earn advanced degrees.

“As a Black teacher, it’s my personal interest to see more Black people coming into the teaching profession,” said Achola, whose research focuses on culturally responsive pedagogy in special education. “What Brandon and I have been doing for the most part is trying not to use traditional recruitment methods because what we are learning is that some of the traditional methods are responsible for the outcomes we are observing right now.”

Achola’s grassroots approach includes targeted efforts to reach out into cultural spaces where he knows he is going to find students and teachers of color – such as in faith-based communities, community colleges that typically attract a higher proportion of Black teachers, or even local barber shops that provide a tremendous resource of social capital.

Both Achola and Gamble agree that one of the biggest obstacles standing between minority students and a degree from a four-year university is perception, specifically the assumption that Long Beach State is just “too hard to get into.”

“One thing I’ve learned when talking to students is that they have this perception that (Long Beach State) is not as accessible, so many of them don’t bother applying,” Achola said. “Some of it also has to do with geography. Other, smaller community colleges may be surrounded by neighborhoods with higher populations of black families and so it’s easier for them to get there. And a third issue that I think plays into what is going on is our lack of strategy in previous years to recruit and retain black teachers. This is important from the standpoint that it allows a black student to learn from people who look like them and understand them.”

Student smiles during graduation ceremony
Targeted university resources assist African American students to succeed. Photos courtesy of university archives.

Achola also said he feels strongly that even the best recruitment efforts are negated if there is no plan in place for retention. He and Gamble have worked together to develop an infrastructure called the African American Mentoring Program to ensure that once a Black student or teacher arrives on campus, the necessary support and cultural resources are available to help ensure they are successful. Students say their efforts are working.

“My success as an out-of-state graduate student is really reliant on the relationships that I am building along the way,” said graduate student Bria Roberts, who will earn her Masters of Science in Counseling for Student Development in Higher Education in May 2018. “Dr. Gamble and Dr. Achola recognize, vocalize and provide a space to perpetuate the value that African American women bring to the College of Education.

“Even when I have felt like giving up, they remind me that I have a purpose here and that being a Black woman in both America and (here) is not a battle I am fighting alone.”

Gamble and Achola plan to continue using their social capital to improve university connections to Black communities and empower students to pursue their “American Dream.”

“People know the Black community in different ways, said Gamble. “I do think there needs to be a stronger university and community connection. I would like it to be much stronger. In five years, I want to know every Black student. I want to know their story. I want to know how we can best help them even after they leave, but also to bring them back to connect them with our current and potential students. College isn’t something you should endure alone.”