Titus M. Hamlett, MA
Pre-Graduate School Barriers
One of my first barriers to higher education involved making the financial commitment. I was raised by a single mother who instilled in me a strong value for higher education. My mother worked two full-time jobs and a part-time job to ensure that our family had financial stability. She devoted tireless effort to her roles as a provider and mother. Her hard work and sacrifice inspired and motivated me to achieve academically. As the elder of two sons, I also wanted to be a good role model for my younger brother. Because my basic needs were met, I always felt higher education was a viable option. I remember vividly, however, that many of my friends wrote off college entirely because they felt it was out of their reach. Many of these friends had little faith in the idea of student-loans, which seemed counterintuitive to them. They came from mostly low-income families and wanted to begin earning a salary as soon as possible in order to be self-sufficient. The last thing they wanted was to continue their financial struggle as a college student while simultaneously going into debt. Thus, many decided to enter the workforce early. I shared their sentiment regarding student-loans, but chose to pursue higher education largely because of my desire to make my mother proud and be a good role model for my brother.
African-American Male Socialization
Although financial factors influenced my decision to pursue higher education, gender and cultural socialization issues were also significant barriers. As a teenager with a desire to do well academically, I encountered resistance from peers who felt that academic achievement was somehow not consistent with a black male identity. My high school friends valued aggression and stoicism over academic achievement. While links between stereotypical male identities and academic achievement are often overblown, some authors have found that for at least a subset of African-American males, adolescent attitudes towards academics predicts future disengagement (Matthews, 2014). Where this is true, it may help to explain the large discrepancy between African-American male and African-American female academic achievement. Of the 2,079 doctorates awarded to African-Americans in 2012, 1,322 went to women (“No progress in closing the racial gap in doctoral degrees,” 2013). Thus, women received 63.6 percent of all African-American doctorates. In contrast, women accounted for 49 percent of all doctorates awarded to white Americans (2013).
My enrolling in advanced placement classes created a rift particularly with my male friends. Because these classes were largely comprised of white and female students, my friends viewed this as a rejection of them and a rejection of my African-American male identity. However, I had a different viewpoint. I saw academic achievement as a strong family value and a means to achieve true independence, which I associated with male identity. In addition, my commitment to my family trumped any peer influence. My mother went above and beyond as a caretaker and I planned to reward her sacrifice, even if it meant finding new friends.
There has been much discussion among psychologists and sociologists about the absence of black fathers. According to the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau, 51% of African-American children were living with a single mother while only 23% of all other American children lived with a single mother (Gant & Greif, 2009). While there is a widespread perception that child academic achievement is lower in African-American households without a father present, large-scale studies suggest that this holds only if low socio-economic status is also factored in (Bell, 2008). I recall that many of my friends had no significant male role models and only looked up to other male peers. My experience was somewhat different. While I did not have a relationship with my biological father, I benefited from having positive African-American male role models. One such role model was my high school teacher Mr. Stepter. He was living vindication for me that one could be both black and academically astute. He took me under his wing and motivated me to take on leadership roles and get involved in extracurricular actives at school. As a high school senior, he encouraged me to apply to an internship at the Legg Mason financial firm in downtown Baltimore. Even though the internship was for college students, he thought I might have a chance at securing a position and at the very least could learn from the process. A week later I interviewed at the downtown location and a few days before my high school graduation was offered the internship. My experience at Legg Mason created a paradigm shift in my thinking and provided me with an early exposure to a professional environment. This event set the tone for the rest of my academic career. Without the guidance and encouragement of Mr. Stepter it is unlikely I would have had the confidence to pursue such a great opportunity, a supposition supported by research demonstrating the power of mentorship in African-American youth. Voisin and Elsaesser (2014) surveyed 219 African-American male students and found that higher school engagement levels and student–teacher bonds were associated with lower rates of aggressive behaviors, lower levels of gang involvement, delay of sexual debut, and lower levels of unsafe sexual behaviors.
Graduate School Barriers
While many of my early barriers have since been overcome, financial strain continues to be my primary obstacle. Completing four years of undergraduate education, two years of a master’s program, and five years for a PhD will equal 11 years of very tight fiscal management and the accumulation of significant student loan debt. I believe it takes a strong value for higher education to give up 11 years of full-time salary while simultaneously accruing many thousands of dollars in student-loan debt. Any casual observer would probably view this as a risky gamble. I too must confess to frequent doubts about whether becoming a psychologist will be worth the many years it will take to pay off my debt. According to APA’s 2009 Doctorate Employment Survey, graduates with a PsyD in Clinical Psychology reported a median debt level of $120,000, up from $70,000 in 1999 (Michalski, Wicherski, Kohout, & Hart, 2011). The median income reported by graduates with a doctorate in psychology, however, was $50,000 to $70,000, actually down from the median income range ($52,000 to $72,000) reported in 2007. Between 1999 and 2009 there was a 42% increase in median student-loan debt for PsyD clinical psychology graduates, yet only a 21% increase in salary for clinical psychologists during the same time period (Michalski et al., 2011; Kohout & Wicherski, 2003). In contrast, graduates from research-orientated PhD programs only reported a median debt level of $38,500, with 38% reporting no debt at all (Michalski et al., 2011; Kohout & Wicherski, 2003). The level of student-loan debt for early-career psychologists is troubling to say the least, but my desire to become a clinical psychologist goes beyond salary.
I recently finished the APPIC internship match process. This is a necessary step towards completion of my doctoral education, but one that adds additional expense. The 2012 APPIC Match Survey revealed that on average applicants applied to 16 internship sites and spent $1,870 on the match process (Keilin, 2014). While I was fortunate to match to an APA-accredited internship site, I think about the many students who have sacrificed so much financially and will not match this year. In this area, fortunately, African-American applicants do relatively well. In 2012 the match rate for African-American applicants was 74% compared to 79% for white applicants (Keilin, 2014).
I wonder the extent to which the field’s current wage-to-debt ratio contributes to the low number of African-American males entering the field. In the 2012 APPIC Match Survey, approximately 42% of applicants reported debt of $100,000 or higher while 22% reported debt exceeding $150,000 (Keilin, 2014). In speaking with the few African-American males I have come into contact with during graduate school, student-loan debt is consistently described as source of stress and regret. I think about my childhood friends and I wonder how many of them would take out loans in excess of $100,000 to become a psychologist. I am sure there are still African-American males like myself who are willing to make the investment, but if student-loan debt levels continue to rise this will become less likely.
A recent survey of 6,000 graduate faculty members across a range of disciplines revealed that when prospective graduate students reached out for guidance, white males were the most likely to get a reply (Milkman, Akinola, & Chugh, 2014). These results are troubling and have serious ramifications for black male students who may not receive equal opportunity for mentorship as their white male counterparts. Speaking from the experience of being the only African-American in my cohort, I could not imagine getting through graduate school without good mentors. As the only black male, I quickly realized that my actions good or bad were interpreted not just as a reflection of me, but also a reflection on my gender and ethnicity. This was an additional stressor that I would imagine very few white students ever experience. While I am a proponent of diversity training in graduate programs, I wonder how much of this training actually translates into attitudinal change.
AA Male Identity Formation
My journey to graduate school appears to be a fairly common experience among African-American males who obtain higher education. A qualitative study on high achieving African-American male high school students found that protective factors included the desire to make their mother proud, positive role-models at school, and spirituality (Mixon, Butcher, & Harris, 2014). Within these three factors social structures appear to play a prominent role. Coleman’s (1988) theory of social capital provides insight into how social structures such as school support systems are imperative for the academic achievement of African-American males. Coleman defined social capital as social structures that facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure. Social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence (Coleman, 1988). My social capital consisted of both my high school mentor Mr. Stepter and my mother. It is unlikely I would have had an opportunity for a summer internship program in the absence of his mentorship. Similarly, without my mother’s strong commitment to my education it is unlikely I would have been able to solidify an achievement-focused identity. I believe it is important to have a framework for understanding African-American male identity formation. Several studies reveal that African-American males have struggled with understanding and embracing their own racial identity (Adams, 1999; Franklin, 1999; Morgan, 1996; Spurgeon & Myers, 2010). A study on high achieving African-American male high school students found that participants rejected the notion of “acting white” or “acting black” and focused more on individualism (Wright, 2011). The participants resisted the tendency to racialize certain cultural practices. One student commented:
“To me there is no such thing as acting white, acting black. There’s something called acting yourself. Why does having to act formal and proper have to be labeled as acting white? Why can’t it be acting as self? Why do they have to put these behaviors in racial categories?
A healthy identity formation appears to play a significant role in the success or failure of African-American males. In my experience, having a solid sense of self in relation to larger society helped me become more adept at overcoming the barriers to success.
When I switched to advanced placement classes in high school, I noticed that while I was the only African-American male, I was not the only black male student. There was a Nigerian-American student who was also enrolled in my classes. He had a completely different perspective on academic achievement than many of my African-American male peers. His family immigrated to the U.S. for the purpose of obtaining better educational and professional opportunities. Thus, his perception of American society was based on gratitude and a better quality of life. Given the history of race relations in the U.S., many of my African-American friends were much more mistrustful of American society. I would say I was somewhere in between. I recognized the country’s history of racism, but also saw higher education as the key to a much better life.
Several quantitative and qualitative studies have found that African-Americans more so than students of other ethnicities publicly avoid reputations based on academic success (Fryer & Torelli, 2010; Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005). This is consistent with my personal observations. My Nigerian-American friend had less issues embracing his identity as a black advanced placement student. The two of us went on to gain admission to the University of Maryland College Park and graduated the same year. Although we had different motivations, I believe we overcame barriers to success by viewing academic achievement as consistent with our identity as black men.
Overall, my experience as an African-American graduate psychology student has taught me a lot about the problems facing African-American men. However, this experience has also allowed me to understand potential solutions and how the American dream can be just as real for black men as any other group. The barriers that African-American men face do not appear to be diminishing anytime soon. Thus it continues to be important to recognize the strategies and characteristics successful black men utilize in overcoming them. Sadly, psychological research on successful African-American men remains virtually nonexistent even though their experiences would offer valuable insights into the black male experience.
As a practicum student at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, I have had the opportunity to work with many African-American male youth. My experience has been that many of these boys are thirsting for guidance and understanding of their black male identity. In the absence of such guidance many have sought identification with gangs. If we are to attract more African-American males to psychology the process must begin in high school or before. Mentorship and strong parenting are the key factors. I could only imagine the difference it would make if every African-American boy had the guidance of a Mr. Stepter, or grew up with the value for education that my mother instilled in me.
Titus Hamlett is a graduate student in the clinical PhD program of the California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Maryland (College Park). Prior to enrolling in graduate school, Mr. Hamlett served on the staff of the US Senate's Select Committee on Ethics. Mr. Hamlett will complete his predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and be commissioned a Lieutenant in the United States Navy in August, 2015.
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