November 6, 2019

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Georgia Bulldogs versus Florida Gators football game. As a North Carolina Tar Heel, I did not have a rooting interest in either of the teams but happily accepted a friend’s invitation to the game because it is one of the great rivalries in sports. It’s like UNC-Duke in basketball, Ohio State-Michigan in football, or Yankees-Red Sox in Major League Baseball. But this game is more than a game. It is the excuse for “the world’s greatest outdoor cocktail party.” Tens of thousands of Bulldog and Gator fans descend upon the neutral site — Jacksonville, Florida — as early as Wednesday for elaborate tailgating that runs right up to kickoff on Saturday afternoon. And no matter how the teams are ranked in national polls, the game is intense, played before a rabid crowd that is evenly split between Georgia red and black and Florida orange and blue. All of this, for a sports fan, is worth seeing. 

I take away from my weekend in Florida two major observations that have nothing to do with football, however. The first observation is actually my disappointment about the quality of service that many college students receive from their universities. The second involves the leverage of working with young African American men.

A couple of weeks before my trip to Florida, I reached out to six colleges and universities within a two-hour drive of Jacksonville. I often visit campuses to meet talented young men who may be good candidates for the Institute. Sometimes these engagements yield applications for our summer program in Washington, but even when they don’t result in applications, I always have the satisfaction of believing I may have inspired the young men to work harder in pursuit of achievements that will benefit others. And I always invite them to contact me if I can ever be helpful to them. Sadly, these sessions didn’t take place in Florida, because most of the heads of the honors programs at those universities could not be reached by email or telephone, and the one honors program director who did reply to my email told me he would pass it on to someone else. No one took ownership of the responsibility to serve the students. 

And what was I asking them to do? I was asking them to share information about the Institute with their most talented African American male sophomores, and if possible, organize an info session at which the students could learn about the Institute first-hand. That’s it. And what if their students had been afforded the opportunity to meet me? They may have been inspired to apply. And what if they applied and were admitted? They would have benefitted from an experience that many of our alumni say changed their lives, and they would have become part of a close network of extremely talented young men who have become Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, PhD’s, MD’s, JD’s, MBA’s, etc. All at no cost to them or their families. I cannot help but wonder if the reason fewer African American men are taking advantage of high-level educational opportunities is that the folks who should be expected to connect them to those opportunities are preoccupied with other matters. Professors and administrators who connect their students with internships, conferences, organizational memberships, and mentors are extremely influential. They are also few and far between.

My other big observation was a positive one. After enjoying the football game on Saturday afternoon and dinner with wonderful friends on Saturday night, I attended a church service in Jacksonville on Sunday morning. It wasn’t just any church service, but one led by an Institute alumnus, Rev. Christopher McKee, Jr. I sat on the front row with his wife, Eres, and took in the experience like a proud papa. He introduced me to the church as his mentor, which resulted in several people thanking me for my guidance. I told all of them that I’m the one who has benefitted the most from our relationship, and I meant it. Nothing gives me more joy than seeing the successes of our scholars and alumni and knowing that God allowed me to play some small role in them. As Chris’s congregation responded passionately to the various parts of his sermon, I was reminded that the work that God called me to do had not simply impacted Chris’s life but the lives of a few hundred people in that church. 

Chris is one of several alumni who are serving as pastors at churches around the country. Others are practicing law, practicing medicine, teaching in universities and schools, and holding other jobs that are serving large numbers of people. Sometimes people think the Institute’s impact is small because we select small classes of scholars each year, but the Institute’s impact is actually hundreds of thousands because that’s how many parishioners, patients, students, clients, or customers Institute alumni serve. That’s leverage.