“As a member of The Standard,
I pledge to grow in character with the men around me;
I pledge to exemplify excellence both in and outside of the classroom;
I pledge to respect all people and the diversity of the world…”
Twenty-two first-year undergraduate students, all men of color, recited these words as part of an oath inducting them into the inaugural cohort of The Standard. Sponsored by the Office of Minority Education (OME), The Standard is a program designed to holistically support the academic, personal, and professional achievements of MIT’s undergraduate men of color.
Students admitted to The Standard accept a number of responsibilities, including working to foster a diverse community at MIT based on respect and openness, maintaining a competitive GPA, attending workshops and lectures when their schedules permit, and remaining in contact with program staff.
Mentorship is an essential part of the program. Students join in their first year and are paired with upperclassmen, who serve as peer mentors and help them to navigate the MIT community. They are also matched with alumni mentors, men of color who support their professional development. Faculty liaisons help to guide the program and serve as an additional resource for students.
Lawrence Sass, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at MIT, joined The Standard as a faculty liaison this winter. An MIT alumnus, Sass recognized the need for this program.
“I had my own struggles earning my PhD as a student of color at MIT,” he says. “So my motivation is to help men of color with their issues. I know that their specific challenges will be different, but we have a lot of common concerns.”
“Statistically, men of color struggle in university settings,” he continues. “And the struggle is not because of academic performance, it’s a social issue. It can be very difficult to navigate the interpersonal nuances associated with success at a place like MIT, Harvard, or Yale. It can be challenging to find a trusted group of peers and mentors to relate to. It’s very few people who have an understanding of the social complexity behind academic success for African American men.”
Though the program has only been running for one semester, students have already gained a sense of community through participating in it.
“It’s a very strong, encouraging environment,” says rising sophomore Braden Cook, a member of the cohort. “It’s good to be surrounded by people who look like you and want to be academically and personally excellent — just like you do.”
In addition to mentorship opportunities, members of The Standard attend fun outings, guest lectures, and workshops on a variety of topics, including professional development, life skills, self-care, and financial literacy. Select workshops are not only open to members of The Standard, but to all undergraduate men of color. The Standard also offers financial subsidies to members to cover the cost of graduate school preparation and professional development activities, such as conference fees.
This year, The Standard organized a retreat at Endicott House, where members participated in a series of team-building activities.
“It was really fun,” says rising sophomore Francisco Zepeda. “We all felt really comfortable with each other. It was a safe space to talk about what The Standard means for us, what’s going on in our minds, and national events. I felt like I got a lot closer to the cohort there.”
In order to offer an array of programming for members and men of color at MIT, The Standard is partnering with several campus offices, including the Global Education and Career Development office, the Army ROTC, the MIT Alumni Association, Student Mental Health and Counseling at MIT Medical, Student Support Services, Student Financial Services, the Division of Student Life, and the Office of Graduate Education. In December 2017, The Standard was awarded a grant to pilot its first cohort through the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund.
The program is part of a larger, campus-wide effort to support diversity and inclusion at MIT. Other MindHandHeart Innovation Fund projects, sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor and MIT Medical, include My Sister’s Keeper, a program fostering community among black women at MIT; Hermanas Unidas, which brings together Latinas from across campus; and WiSTEM Week, a week of events celebrating women in STEM at MIT.
DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean in the Office of the Vice Chancellor and director of the OME, envisioned The Standard and reflects on its progress.
“We are extremely excited about The Standard because it is something that young men at MIT have been asking us to create for years,” she says. “We believe that we have developed a program that not only utilizes high impact practices set by similar initiatives across the nation, but that directly meets the needs of MIT men of color.”
Cook says members of The Standard are also shaping the direction of the group. “If we’re called ‘The Standard,’ then I think we need to have an impact outside of ourselves and become a force for good on campus. Because we’re brand new, we’re still figuring out where we want the program to go and what projects we take on.”
Zepeda is also inspired by his participation in group and looks forward to welcoming the next cohort. “I would encourage any student who feels like they want to make an impact for MIT’s men of color to join The Standard,” he says.