What Calvin Pugh remembers best about the first event he ever attended for Virginia Tech’s Black Male Excellence Network (BMEN) in fall 2021, was that there was way too much food.

Twenty boxes of pizza. Plates of cookies. Twelve-packs of soda. Of the nearly 1,000 Black male undergraduates on campus, only 15 or so had shown up to eat it.

That didn’t keep Pugh, now a junior majoring in meteorology, from embracing the vision set forth by BMEN's new coordinator, Patrick Wallace — that organization could help Black male students at Virginia Tech excel personally, professionally, and academically. “A lot of Black male students aren't graduating, and it's important to understand that there are resources for them to succeed,” said Pugh, who now serves on the BMEN student advisory board.

That many Black male students are struggling to excel — or even stay — in college is familiar to anyone interested in student success. According to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 34 percent of Black male students completed a bachelor's degree within six years, compared to 57 percent for male undergrads overall. Nationwide, Black men suffered the sharpest drops in college enrollment — 14.8 percent — of any demographic group between 2019-21. 

At Virginia Tech, Black male undergraduates are doing better than most of their national counterparts. Yet even as the university ramped up its efforts to recruit underserved and racially minoritized students, doubling the number of Black male students from a first-year cohort of 128 in 2017 to 247 in 2021, Black men still have the lowest four-year graduation rate and highest dropout rate on campus.

What’s going on? It’s not entirely clear. Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for college access, noticed in the mid-2000s that many incoming Black male students had graduated at the top of their high school classes. “They were valedictorians and salutatorians, took AP and honors classes, and came in with outstanding grade-point averages,” she said. Yet about a third ended up on academic probation. Even more were in academic jeopardy. “From a student success perspective, I knew it just wasn't about academics.”

2023 study from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation pointed toward discrimination and outside responsibilities, like caregiving roles or a full-time job, as two major reasons Black undergraduate students are more likely than anyone else to consider dropping out. Virginia Tech stakeholders have also looked at the effects of social isolation on a predominantly white campus and a lack of Black role models among the faculty. 

No single problem was to blame, said Sanders. "So we decided we needed to put a lot of different strategies out there to help the young men succeed."

Photo of Patrick Wallace
Patrick Wallace (at center) has served as director of BMEN and the organizer of the Uplifting Black Men Conference since 2021. Photo by Lee Hawkins for Virginia Tech.

One of those strategies was BMEN, an organization that helps Black male undergraduates find community and access academic, professional, and social resources so they'll stay in school and graduate on time.

It’s a mission that resonates with Wallace, who took over leadership of BMEN, part of the Student Success Center, in 2021. He came close to being on the other side of the statistics about Black male students.

In the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, he was losing friends to drugs and violence. "I gotta get out of here or I might not survive," he thought. Enrolling as an undergraduate at Penn State offered an escape.

But one night in State College, Wallace was held at gunpoint by a police officer who thought he had robbed an apartment. A year later, his college friend was killed. “When those two things happened, now school wasn't safer,” he said. “It put me in kind of a dark place for a while.”

Friends and mentors urged him not to drop out, but it took Wallace 10 years to finish his degree in religious studies. Now he's uniquely passionate about helping students in a similar position. “I view myself as an ambassador for Black male students,” Wallace said, adding that a group like BMEN would have helped him back when he was a struggling Penn State undergrad.

A student takes the floor at the 2019 Uplifting Black Men Conference.
A student takes the floor at the 2019 Uplifting Black Men Conference. This year's conference will take place Feb. 18 in Squires Student Center.

One annual touchstone for the program is BMEN’s Uplifting Black Men Conference, which brings together an array of Black speakers on topics such as success, resilience, and professional growth. Back in person for the first time in several years, the 2023 conference is scheduled for Feb. 18 and features a keynote about rethinking excellence by Texas Tech Associate Professor of educational psychology Bryan K. Hotchkins.

The rest of the conference will feature sessions by Black male faculty members, students, and community leaders, including Anthony Kwame Harrison, professor in the Department of Sociology; Rafael Patrick, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering; and Eric Glenn, director of diversity, inclusion, and organizational development for University Libraries. Free registration is available online.

College Access Collaborative will host a Pre-College Program the day before for high school students who will also attend the Uplifting Black Men Conference, making it a useful recruiting tool for the university.

The conference was senior political science major Caleb Callender’s first introduction to BMEN. As a first-year student, he was asked to sit on a panel with residents of Ujima, the Black culture living-learning community. Later he served as chair of the BMEN student advisory board. “I knew that building community in the Black community was very important for me, because there's not a lot of us here at this school,” said Callender. “I know the population is rising, but it still isn't that much. So just trying to create a home for all the Black students that are here is something that's always been very important to me.”

Research indicates that college students who feel a sense of belonging and community are more likely to succeed academically, to engage, and to persist through challenges. That’s why Wallace has doubled down on BMEN’s signature series of Barbershop Talks, named for the way barbershops operate as de facto community centers in Black neighborhoods. “The barbershop has always been a cultural space where you can talk about anything,” explained Wallace. “This is a space where everybody's welcome.”

At BMEN’s Barbershop Talks, no one gets a haircut. But they do sometimes talk about hair, as the 25 students gathered in the Black Cultural Center in Squires Student Center did last November. The conversation went deeper, too, touching on mental health, community, sports, identity, financial literacy, generational trauma, misogyny, brotherhood, and Kanye West over the course of several hours.

When the conversation ranged far afield, Wallace gently pulled it back to the mission of BMEN. “What can BMEN do to support you more academically and professionally?” he asked. “At Virginia Tech, most Black male brothers are doing well. But there are some that aren’t.”

Photo of former BMEN advisory board member Sherlock Banks II
Former BMEN advisory board member Sherlock Banks II, who graduated in 2022. Photo by Mary Desmond for Virginia Tech.

For former BMEN advisory board member and 2022 civil engineering graduate Sherlock Banks II, the Barbershop Talks are “where we actually put it all on the floor. Honestly, if it wasn't for the Barbershop Talks, I think a lot of Black males on campus would not have that type of space to talk about these things.”

Clearly, not all Black male students struggle. Banks won a Vecellio Scholarship from the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, served as an undergraduate fellow for Student Affairs and currently interns on a project for NASA. He’ll return to Virginia Tech this fall to earn a master’s degree in construction management engineering.

Meanwhile, Callender interned with the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and held leadership roles with Student African American Brotherhood, a student group that grew out of BMEN. Pugh founded the BMEN book club — members are currently reading "Malcom X." And there's no shortage of outstanding Black male undergrads for BMEN to profile on its website.

Maybe these students have defied the odds. Maybe they’re pointing the way forward. But they all understand why it matters to help the Black male students who aren't graduating. “It's important for us to figure out why," said Pugh. "Since Patrick has been there [at BMEN], a lot of people have reached out to us and we've had a lot of success, and that’s only the beginning. In the future, BMEN is going to have a big impact not only on just the Black community, but on the university as a whole.”

Registration for the Uplifting Black Men Conference, to be held 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 18 in Squires, is free and open to the public, including anyone who works with or is interested in the success of Black male students. Register here

By Melody Warnick