Written by Christina Yang, RightTrack Intern 

Within the Post Secondary breakout room during Generation Next’s Annual Event, the conversations began with Jeremiah Ellis breaking down Generation Next’s takeaways of culturally sustaining practices. He emphasized the focus on points four, five and six. Takeaway four states “To create equity-minded programs and strategies, innovations must appreciate, recognize, and learn from previous internal efforts.” Takeaway five states “To solve for the right pain points, you have to design and assess your program with its users and implementers.” Takeaway six states “Collective impact helped us learn, evaluate, and improve in ways that allows us to scale equity-minded strategies and practices.” These three takeaways surround the ideas of supporting an ecosystem of student & administrative collaboration and addressing the disparities, inequities, and support gaps often overlooked. 

The focus of the conversation then shifted to Minneapolis and Saint Paul postsecondary enrollment patterns. Generation Next collaborates with Minneapolis College and Saint Paul College because data has shown that many Minneapolis and Saint Paul high school graduates choose to enroll in these institutions. The pattern graph brought attention to the data showing a large population of enrolled students unenrolling in the institutions after only one year. In an attempt to dismantle this pattern, Saint Paul College has implemented the Strategic Enrollment Plan (SEM). Vice President of Saint Paul College, Kay Francis Garland, explained that SEM was developed to create a supportive academic environment for all students, particularly focusing on retention, persistence, and completion. When evaluating the data collected from the pool of students who had unenrolled in the institutions, Generation Next and Saint Paul College noticed that there were significantly lower retention and completion rates for BIPOC men. This was the inception of a dynamic community building program called iLEAD.  

The iLEAD Fellowship program began in October 2022 and is committed to supporting and empowering BIPOC male students. Their goal is to increase retention, persistence, and completion rates of these targeted students and ensure that they find professions and employments that pay thriving wages. Xiong Chang, the advisor of the program, explained that students that iLEAD serve produced the title iLEAD. Chang asked the students about their values and collaborated with them to produce the acronym iLEAD. iLEAD stands for core principles that the students embody and want to program to embody as well: Identity, Leadership, Excellence, Accountability, and Dedication.  

As Chang explained how iLEAD came to be, I was immediately captivated by how the students’ voices and agency were so intertwined in co-creating the program. An equity-minded program solving for the right pain points being designed and assessed by the very same students it serves is astonishing to me. It reminded me of a phrase I gathered from a Racial Justice STEAM Collective Convening event specifically for data that I attended recently: No data about us without is for us. To recognize that a community to be actively involved in the making of a program or an impact designed to serve themselves is exactly how we achieve equity goals. 

The program currently serves 34 students, aged from 18-66 years old, and will have 10 graduates by the end of Spring 2024. iLEAD Fellowship reported a retention rate of 97%. The retention strategies iLEAD utilizes include a physical space supplied with technology and basic needs exclusively for iLEAD students, individualized holistic support via stipends, basic needs, books and material assistance, and gap tuition assistance, and lastly, leadership opportunities through peer mentoring and program ambassadors.  

Chang went on to explain the intrusive advising strategy he uses as an advisor. Firstly, students have a mandatory first semester advising with him. Secondly, he uses a D2L data tool called PowerBI. This tool is right in Chang’s mobile phone. Through this tool, he has access to the students’ grades and attendance records. When a student is reported absent a certain number of times or when a student’s grade nears a failing grade, Chang is immediately notified and reaches out to the student right away. I specifically remember that Chang emphasized that he contacts the said students relentlessly. This stuck out to me because I am also in an academic support program at my high school, and I also have mandatory monthly advising with my advisor. The method of relentless efforts to contact a student came as a shock to me but I understand that academic accountability is necessary, and some students may require additional academic accountability.  

ILEAD requires students to journal weekly to record their data. They establish SMART goals every semester, redefine success, reflect, or write about a given prompt. The students use the Rocketbook technology to send their finished journal entry to Chang. These journals allow iLEAD to record BIPOC male experiences in higher education. A recent prompt given was to write one or two things that you have gotten out of the iLEAD Fellowship Program. Students answered:  

“Optimism from the whole group. Everyone has taught me that we can overcome any challenge we might face through our lives, we just need to be optimistic and brave.” 

“It is okay to feel my emotions. I am a human being. I do not have to feel ashamed about it.” 

“Failure makes us stronger.” 

“I’m not really sure what I have gotten or could get out of iLEAD. I’m still in the mindset of I need to do everything alone, and I am working on it. But for now, even if I knew how iLEAD could help me, I would probably refuse it instinctively. Maybe if I just show up, eventually I will be comfortable enough to ask for help.”  

I want to add on to the last response. I cannot speak for all BIPOC communities, but in my Hmong community, these thoughts are prevalent among men. The Hmong are very patriarchal, so the concept of the men bearing all the struggle, the work, and the weight of being the face and voice for their families has been engraved into their conscience whether they like it or not. There is no room for tears or exhaustion. No space for weakness or authentic vulnerability. There must only be strength. In recent years, many Hmong families have detached from the cultural patriarchy and as a result, the Hmong community, specifically men, have begun to embrace vulnerability and accountability. So, while there has been progress within the Hmong, there is still space to grow. Underlying subconscious shame is an obstacle that many will overcome on their path of success, and programs like iLEAD will offer significant aid in these processes.  

The program’s community consultant, Roosevelt Mansfield, coordinates culturally responsive activities and works with students to build community by engaging in challenging conversations surrounding community, leadership, identity, relationships, mental health, and more. 

As iLEAD begins its second year in service, they are focused on expanding the program while continuing the wrap-around and holistic programming to support the targeted population and include a more robust leadership curriculum. This curriculum will include paid internships, a service-learning component, a professional developing structure, and individual capstone projects.  

The conversation shifted to allow Peer Mentor & Program Ambassadors, Steve Combs and Rayan Carillo Alcazar, to share their experiences with iLEAD. Combs stated that his brothers in iLEAD inspire him to be a better person and has helped in numerous ways. Alcazar expressed his gratitude towards the program and wished that Saint Paul College was a four-year institution so that he could stay with his cohort longer. It was helpful to hear the experiences of two students. 

ILEAD is a prime example of administrative and student collaboration to achieve and maintain culturally sustaining practices through an equity lens. It exemplifies Generation Next’s Culturally Sustaining Practices takeaways.