UNM student Gerald Jamar Smith said he wants to help students continue their education and pursue their dreams.
“I’d like to see social justice and fairness for all people,” Smith said. “If we don’t help people that need it, there is no improvement in a global sense.”
To that end, in 2011 Smith co-founded the Men of Color Alliance with his friends, UNM students Christopher Ramirez and Patrick Barrett. The alliance is a UNM student organization that gathers men of color in an effort to provide them with a sense of community through various events, such as poker night and rock climbing.
Smith is an African American transfer student from Los Angeles. He decided to move to New Mexico because of greater opportunities and financial aid he could receive as an out-of-state student. But he said the biggest challenge he had to overcome was graduating from high school and getting into college.
“My freshman year of high school, I missed a hundred days of school and my GPA was terribly low. I was about to drop out,” he said. “Neither of my parents have graduated high school, so I didn’t really expect that to happen to me.”
But he said one of his teachers sat down with him and asked him about the classes he would like to take, which gave him an opportunity to build his own schedule based on his interests. He said his teacher’s interest encouraged him to improve his grades and continue on to community college.
“I finally had a teacher that saw my potential, I guess, and took into consideration my own interests,” he said.
Smith said his teacher’s help spurred him to encourage and counsel others because he knows how important it is to have someone who believes in you.
“I believe that everything you do, even if you can’t feel it right away, benefits you, your children and the rest of the world,” he said. “So I started thinking — how can I change it if I can?”
Smith said the Men of Color Alliance aims to improve student success rates with a focus on male students of color and informs students about different opportunities to help with their education, including teaching students how to study abroad and apply for scholarships. He said the organization found that graduation rates for minority students at UNM are low.
According to the UNM Division of Enrollment Management, out of the students who were freshman in 2005, the graduation rate for African American students was 35.4 percent, the rate for American Indian students was 20.9 percent and the rate for Hispanic students was 42.5 percent.
”Me and my friends started thinking — how could students help with that graduation rate?” he said. “We were trying to come up with an informal way to counsel them.”
Smith said the organization is a way to connect people with similar backgrounds, because many of the members are similar to him in that they come from out of state and community colleges. He said the program has been successful.
“One of my friends has just graduated and is thinking about law school and is working for the Obama administration in Denver now,” he said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of success with the program and we hope it continues this way.”
Smith said that for the past two years, he’s been involved in Engaging Latino Communities for Education (ENLACE), a program created predominantly for high schools with low graduation rates or high dropout rates, and worked specifically at Rio Grande and Highland high schools in Albuquerque.
“We are trying to build a relationship with high school students and show them a positive image of the college experience,” he said. “It’s especially close to me since I went to a similar high school and I solidarize with them.’’