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September/ October 2013 Dropouts Tell No Tales

An African American journalist returns to his college alma mater to find out why so many students like him never make it out.

By Jamaal Abdul-alim

Raised by his mother and grandparents, P.J. attended Dominican High School, a Catholic college preparatory school in the village of Whitefish Bay, an affluent suburban enclave that is sometimes contemptuously called “White Folks Bay” because of the homogenous nature of the affluent white families who call the village home. For P.J., traveling from his neighborhood in Milwaukee to school in Whitefish Bay meant traversing between “two different cultures.”

“I had to struggle there trying to identify myself with the people who went there,” P.J. said. “It was real hard for me having to catch the bus from Fourteenth and Atkinson and go into the suburbs and that’s my school, and go back to the reality of where I’m really from. Back to the violence and drugs and ran-down neighborhoods.”

When I asked P.J., as I asked others throughout my visit, if he thought the problem of low on-time graduation rates for black students at UWM was due to some systemic shortcoming at the institutional level, or various socioeconomic issues at the individual and family levels, P.J. had plenty to say.

“I think it’s a combination of everything you just mentioned,” P.J. said. “I would also say that a lot of black students come into college with the wrong mind-set in terms of what they want to do. They don’t come into this college knowing what they want to do, what career path to follow. They have their priorities mixed up. A lot of them do the partying more than school.”

As we spoke, a student named Lester Kern Jr., a dreadlocked twenty-three-year-old psychology major, entered the conversation and related a personal story that lent credence to everything P.J. had just said.

“I was partying too much for my first two semesters,” Kern said when I asked him why he was still a junior after having started at UWM in spring of 2008. He said he failed courses and wound up on academic probation. “The biggest factor for why I didn’t do well is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Kern explained. “I figured there was no big goal I was working toward so I felt if I messed up, no big deal.” Kern said he is still struggling to find his direction in life but realizes that “wasting time isn’t going to get me there.” He added, “I can’t blame anybody else but myself for why it’s taken so long.”

If there is anything to which I owe my own successful matriculation at UWM, at the top of the list would be something that many of the black students I met at UWM told me they lacked during their childhoods: strong familial and financial support, which I enjoyed growing up with both my parents in Sherman Park, a Milwaukee neighborhood that was experiencing white flight when my parents moved there in the late 1970s.

My father, who grew up in the Roger Williams Housing Projects in Mobile, Alabama, migrated to Milwaukee at the tail end of the Great Migration and worked for Wisconsin Bell (which later became Ameritech under AT&T by the time he retired). From the earliest days of my childhood, I remember my father talking about the need for me to “go further” than he did educationally, how he enrolled in a technical college once but was distracted by wanting to hang out with his buddies in a pool hall in his hometown.

My mother, a woman of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s South Side, investigated insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was always taking me on trips to museums and the like and exposed me to a wide variety of books, such as Manchild in the Promised Land, which she required her only son to read once he started to veer toward trouble in school and in the streets. I had my own desk and shelves full of books for as far back as I can remember. My parents earned enough to invest in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica for me back when encyclopedia salesmen still went door to door.

Despite the mostly positive influences inside my home, however, I was not immune to the negative influences that lurked just outside. As the city’s manufacturing industry began its precipitous decline just at the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic, street gangs with Chicago origins had risen to a new level of prominence in Milwaukee, and many young black boys—whether fatherless or not—wound up defaulting to whatever gang dominated their neighborhood. In my case, it was the Black Gangster Disciples, or BGD.

Though I professed allegiance to the imprisoned leader of the BGD, Larry Hoover—or “King Hoover,” as we referred to him—I was never a hard-core member, and I was lucky to be absent during most of the gang’s fights and various crimes. But I wrote my gang name—Imperial “G”—in Magic Marker graffiti on garages, and after school I participated in an activity called “gettin’ roguish,” which essentially meant breaking windows and setting plastic garbage carts on fire.

Several of my BGD associates wound up in Wales, the juvenile correctional facility for Milwaukee boys who ran afoul of the law. I could have easily been sent to Wales myself: at one point, I took my father’s .22 to school to stave off would-be attackers who had made threats during a mysterious call; in another incident, I participated (albeit unwillingly) in a strong-arm robbery of some white boys on Center Street with an older BGD member named Tony New York. He is currently serving seven years in prison for robbery.

My parents married and divorced twice, the second time when I was in middle school. By then I was having relationship problems of my own. Although I managed to avoid becoming a teenage father, unlike several of my close friends, the first time I feared that I had gotten a girl pregnant was in seventh grade. (I could easily be a grandfather by now, and I just turned forty.)

My high school years were split between my parents’ homes and two different high schools. I spent my freshman year at John Marshall High School in Milwaukee, which had a broadcasting and journalism career specialty program. I wasn’t as interested in journalism at the time as I was in spinning records. This was during the Golden Age of Hip Hop, and like many basement-party DJs of the era, I kept my records in milk crates that I took from behind the nearby grocery store.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim
Class of ’96: The author, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, delivered pizzas and wrote crime stories for the Milwaukee Sentinel while an undergraduate at UWM. He credits his supportive family and the editors at the Sentinel, who said they would not hire him without a college degree, for motivating him to graduate.

Jamaal Abdul-alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in coverage of higher education.

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