LYNN — Willy Gomez’ deep interest in math helped him breeze through English High School and graduate in 2017. But he ran into a brick wall when he enrolled in Merrimack College that fall.
“I got smacked with reality,” said the 20-year-old Lynn resident.
The commute from Lynn to North Andover proved tougher than he counted on and family pressures weighed on him. He dropped out after one semester and juggled a job in Danvers with another at Market Basket in Lynn. Eventually, he became homeless.
A place to stay with his aunt and attention from his pastor at Christian Vision Ministry in Lynn helped Gomez stabilize his life and set his sights again on college.
“My pastor said, ‘Start fresh — I don’t want to see you pushing grocery carts,'” he said.
Acting on a friend’s suggestion to enroll in North Shore Community College (NSCC), Gomez signed up for five classes last fall. But before he took a seat in a classroom, he became one of a small group of young African-American and Latino men who are first-generation college students.
The group, called Men as Leaders Empowered to Strive (M.A.L.E.S.), matched the men with their mentors. The group’s goal is to offer a solid transition into college and help the men “become engaged learners and members of their communities.”
The students met earlier this month with 17 college teacher mentors, including math professor Billy Jackson and Dr. Jennifer Harris, chairwoman of the college psychology department.
Michele Cubelli Harris, NSCC senior special program coordinator, said 2017 Harvard Business School research identified the lowest college completion rates were among first-generation college African-American and Latino males in their early 20s.
Cubelli Harris said work responsibilities and a lack of knowledge about college are contributing factors to the dropout rate.
Gomez’ parents got as far as elementary school in Guatemala but he excelled in school and considers math “like a language I’ve spoken all my life.”
Academic prowess couldn’t overcome the time management and organization demands of college that slammed him at Merrimack. The mentors program and NSCC’s approach to helping its commuter students makes him feel like he is now on more solid academic ground.
“I found out they check up on you and ask, ‘How are you doing? Do you need any help?'” he said.
Mentor program ground rules include face-to-face meetings once a month with a mentor to discuss college goals developed by the student.
“The mentor offers support and keeps them accountable on their goals,” Cubelli Harris said.
Dr. Harris said she was aware before becoming a mentor of the lack of intellectual and academic role models for many young men of color. She said her primary responsibility as a mentor is to instill confidence in students by helping reduce academic pressure they may feel and eliminating any sense of failure.
“We are all here for student success,” she said.
Jackson has taught for seven years, including a summer “bridge” class focused on young African-American and Latino men with higher education goals. He saw a noticeable difference in student confidence levels at the end of the six-week course.
Gomez’ math skills initially prompted him to pursue business studies at NSCC. He has since switched to liberal arts.
“I want to find out what I like,” he said.