When Abdul M. Omari was a teen, his parents made some things clear: “You’re going to college. You’re going to get good grades. And we can’t pay for it, so figure it out.” Did he ever. Omari, 34, went to the University of Minnesota where he earned a bachelor’s degree in global studies, a master’s in public policy and a doctorate in international development education. He served on the U’s Board of Regents from 2013 to 2019 and founded AMO Enterprise, a leadership training institute. But he never forgot the value his immigrant parents, she from Jordan, he from Kenya, placed on higher education. Omari explains his work with the Minnesota Private College Council, which runs a scholarship program for black men.
Q: You saw a problem that needed addressing. What was it?
A: The four-year African-American male graduation rate nationally is 15%, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The statistics reflect a slightly better story in Minnesota: African-American male students at Minnesota private colleges and universities have a four-year completion rate of 46%. It’s 26% at the University of Minnesota and 9% at Minnesota State Universities. While Minnesota private colleges are doing the best job at enrolling and educating African-American men, there remains a significant gap between them and white students. Our mission is to make sure they graduate in four years and have a job waiting for them or be ready for graduate school.
Q: Since launching through the Minnesota Private College Fund in 2015, how much have you grown?
A: We began with a three-student pilot. We have 40 students today.
Q: And your graduation rate?
A: Eighty-two percent. Word is getting out. We’ve got freshmen coming to our sessions. We’ve had parents call us.
Q: Impressive. But those freshmen have to be patient, yes?
A: We strategically take rising juniors — those between their sophomore and junior years — who are earning a GPA of between 2.0 and 2.9. Oftentimes what’s happening when they get to the end of their sophomore year is that they’re most likely still living at home where those responsibilities are becoming greater. So they’ve dropped below a 3.0, they’ve lost scholarships and are on the cusp of not making it. But not for lack of effort.
Q: How do you find them and keep them in school?
A: We work directly with schools and their campus coordinators who check in with them regularly. And not just in the classroom. We hold a retreat in the fall and attend a national conference in the spring. We have a yoga instructor and sleep specialist. We are trying to do everything the institution cannot or will not do. And we couldn’t do anything without our development director, Carolyn Jones, who coordinates everything from driving to booking flights to writing grants.
Q: Please say more about the students’ unique challenges.
A: Oftentimes, they are first-generation students and the first to attend college. Their responsibilities outside of school are often a lot higher, such as taking care of siblings and parents. They experience isolation because they’re not seeing folks who look like them and they’re not seeing themselves in textbooks. They might go to the financial aid office and find out that they owe $2,000 and will be asked, “Can’t your mom just write a check?” These are things that keep students from being engaged on campus.
Q: They must find comfort in being together.
A: The biggest thing they tell us is, “We want more time together, we need more time together.” We’re planning a get-together to see “Just Mercy,” play arcade games at the mall and have dinner. Friendship and bonding is everything to them.
Q: What colleges and majors are represented?
A: The University of St. Thomas, Carleton College, St. Mary’s University. We’ve also worked with St. Olaf College, Hamline University, Augsburg University, Concordia College and St. John’s University. They study business, finance, computer science, theater, philosophy, physical therapy, engineering. One student is going to be a teacher.
Q: Do you find them internships?
A: We help them with interviewing skills and work hard to place them in meaningful internships. We pay them roughly $15 an hour.
Q: And you make sure they’re dressed for success.
A: We partner with the Tom James custom suit company, which fits them in suits with ties, shoes and belts. When they first get fitted, there’s a deep level of pride and excitement. They’ve got their initials embroidered inside their suits. When they walk into the room at the black student leadership conference, the other 650 college students turn their heads.
Q: How are you funded?
A: The [Jay and Rose] Phillips Family Foundation was the first funder of the Eddie Phillips scholarship for black men. Two years ago, the Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children started a new cohort.
Q: Share a favorite success story.
A: One alum was able to graduate early because of two credits gained from my summer leadership course. Upon expansion of the program, we were able to hire him as a scholarship associate working directly with the scholars. It’s a great testament to have a student working with us now.