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Building a Foundation


MARSHALL:   So I actually didn't see myself going to college at first. I mean, I did, but in a little bit of a way it was like, I wanted to just get through high school. But understand that what I take from high school applies to college too. Because what you learn from one thing applies to the next. It was like a building block, like a foundation.

Welcome to Redefine U, a podcast that explores what happens when we’re challenged to change our beliefs, our thoughts or even who we think we are.

If you’ve ever helped build a house, a shed or even a big cake, you know you need a solid base to construct a stable structure.

How do you build a sturdy foundation for yourself when you’re the first person in your family to do something? For many first generation college students the world of higher education — it’s processes and terminology — is the unknown. When that’s your story, what support is needed? How are those needs complicated if you’re from an at-risk population?

I’m Dan Baum and in this, our seventh podcast episode, we’ll talk to Marshall Campbell, an AACC student active in the Student Success and Achievement Program (or SASP), as well as the Black Male Initiative. We’ll also talk to Leon Thomas, current director of Student Engagement and former program manager of SASP.

First, Marshall’s story.

DAN:               Well, thanks for being with us, Marshall. You are an AACC student and you came right out of high school, is that right?

MARSHALL:   Correct. Back in 2013.

DAN:               What are you studying? What's your major?

MARSHALL:   My major is hospitality, which is hotel restaurant management.

DAN:               And have you always been interested in that subject or did you kind of discover that?

MARSHALL:   In high school, I found out more I was a people kind of person. I like dealing with a lot of like hotels and being hospitable to people, making them feel comfortable and at ease.

DAN:               Did you have any, or maybe I should say, what concerns, if any, did you have entering college from high school?

MARSHALL:   I guess the main concern would be finding out exactly where I fit in and how to achieve harder goals.

DAN:               What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced?

MARSHALL:   Well, I failed some classes. Back in 2016, I took a math class for the third time. It took me the whole summer to get through it, but I finally passed it the third time.

DAN:               You're not the only person who has struggled with math at times. So tell me a little bit more about that experience.

MARSHALL:   The hardest thing with math is that, you know, it takes me a long time to understand it.

So, I guess seeing it over again, like, gave me a chance to refresh it in my head and to see it in a different light. But then, the second time I still didn't get through it, so I had to go back again and tell myself I'm going to get it this time. I just have to keep doing this step by step.

You have to go into it knowing that I will achieve it, but it's going to be some work behind it. Look at it as a way of I'm going get it, but it's going to take some time. I have to grow. I have to explore this. Open up a little bit more, and then explore all my options.

DAN:               And did you get involved with the SASP or Bridge to Success?

MARSHALL:   Oh, yeah. I'm a part of SASP, too, and I actually did the Bridge to Success program over this past summer.

DAN:               What did you get most out of that program?

MARSHALL:   I got a chance to work with people and to try to help them to get adjusted to college and understand that there's many of services at the college that can help you. You don't have to feel like you're left out.

DAN:               So you don't have to go it alone.


DAN:               And were there people in the program that also helped guide you along the way?

MARSHALL:   Yes. Leon. I went to the Men of Color meeting once before and Leon really does a phenomenal job of helping all the students to get to know that SASP has many different services that can also help students to excel in just about any major, any field.

DAN:               Tell me more about that program that, the Men in Color program, and your involvement in it.

MARSHALL:   Men of Color is about black men coming together to understand that college, that no matter what race you are, no matter what ethnicity you are, you can still find a lot of people that can help you to be successful. It may be something like adjusting your schedule so that you can, like if you work during the day and take classes at night, you can fit all that in. Or if you're just coming to college, you're connected with the proper supports that can help you, like the SASP lab, the writing lab, the math lab.

DAN:               So, what was it like to join a group like that? Tell me a little bit about what that experience was like.

MARSHALL:   So the Men of Color group told me over the summer that no matter what you're wanting to achieve in life, that you can do it. You have to put your mind to it and that you get to see, you have to envision yourself actually working toward that goal.

Marshall wasn’t sure about college. He worried about where he would fit in and how he’d deal with difficult challenges. He refers to finding his place and his incredible persistence in math as building his foundation.

It’s hard to build a foundation by yourself. Marshall started to tell us about the supports he had here at the college. What were those supports and why are they so important?

To learn more, we’ll talk to Leon Thomas. Leon oversaw the Black Male Initiative and has been helping students succeed at AACC for eight years. What insights can he provide into the challenges faced by students like Marshall?

DAN:               What does the Director of Student Engagement do?

LEON:             Director of student engagement oversees all of our clubs and organizations here on campus, also our Emergency Services here on campus to include HelpLink, as well as our food pantry.

DAN:               Now this is a fairly new role for you. Tell me about your previous title and role.

LEON:             Okay. Previously, I was program manager for the Student Achievement and Success Program. So, there I was a student success retention advisor as well that focused on providing services for at-risk populations or those who show high-risk factors, first-generation college students, low-income, ethnic minorities, students who may have tested into foundational courses or developmental courses.

DAN:               In those programs, what type of students are typically participating? What's their perspective on college when they come into a program like that?

LEON:             I think they start out pretty excited about college, and wanting to be engaged, and wanting to find their way, and make their own path to the academic goals that they have. Pretty excited. Some of them really fresh to the idea of attending college. Or may have attended previously or other institutions and want to just find their way to connecting to what their academic goals are.

DAN:               You said they start out that way?

LEON:             Yes. They start out that way.

DAN:               So what happens?

LEON:             Depending on the challenges that they come into contact with along that path, they may be derailed. They may be challenged in a way in pursuing those goals. Keeping them motivated is really what we try to do, and keeping that path clear. How do you build your supports while you're here on campus? What do you do when you get frustrated? What do you do when the vision gets foggy? Who do you access? What are the conversations that you have? What are the resources that are available? When I say they start out that way, sometimes their light can flicker a little bit, get a little dim. How do we ignite that flame again and keep them motivated?

DAN:               What kind of challenges or issues are they wrestling with typically?

LEON:             Some of them may be financial challenges. There's a gap there in the supports that students may be receiving. Transportation challenges. Perhaps even students being on the academically performance level. Those are some of the challenges students may bear with.

DAN:               They came in on a high. Life intervenes. What do you typically see is their reaction when that happens?

LEON:             There's a sense of overwhelm. So it's hard to continue to be motivated if you're not aware of everything that's available for you, the supports that you have. Then if you're coming in with a perception of what college is, and then once you're in it, it's completely opposite of what you thought, you have to kind of recalibrate or get your bearings again of, "Okay, it's not that. How do I move forward with this reality, based upon this new experience?"

DAN:               From your experience, you're seeing a number of students going through this. Do those students recognize that others are going through it? Or do they feel like, "I'm the only one who is having this issue"?

LEON:             Yes and no. You have those who recognize that I'm not the only one, but it's very easy to feel isolated, particularly if you're not willing to share your story or be in an environment or in a group of people where you do make yourself accessible to some of those others who are experiencing some of those same things.

DAN:               What kind of skills are the students bringing that you're helping to draw out or qualities that you're looking for them to maybe build a little more?

LEON:             The perseverance, I think, is one strong quality, and tenacity. Being open and willing to explore. Being vulnerable. Allowing folks into your space, to a sense, where you're able to receive the assistance. Kind of making it aware that, "I don't know it all. This is a new system. I'm not completely confident on how to navigate it. And then where do I go for that assistance?"

Our students are pretty good at saying, "I need assistance," if we are willing to hear them in that way. I think sometimes we may miss the cues. I think that's where relationships come in. I think that part of their strengths are building relationships. I think that's why the Student Achievement and Success Program has been able to be as successful as it is because it has that foundation of, "Okay, if I can build a relationship with students, then it builds the students' confidence, and then they're willing to share their story. Then we can navigate them accordingly to what they need."

DAN:               Do you mean, if I'm hearing correctly, that they may not directly ask for help, but you know what they're really saying, that they are asking for that?

LEON:             Yes. Yes. Many times, they won't directly ask for help. They may be just your frequent fliers, or they may just continue to show up, or they may kind of ask a question, but not really. "I'm here for this.” But in receiving that as the expert it's, “you’re really asking for this, so let's have a greater conversation. How much can we do before I have to resource out to something else?"

DAN:               You've started an initiative aimed specifically for black men. Tell me a little bit about that program.

LEON:             Yes. Black Male Initiative started when I arrived at campus in January 2011, maybe February 2011.

There's an equity gap there, as far as achievement, and being successful, and persisting at the college. We wanted to be intentional about building a community that supports directly that set of men. We started out with a summit, the Black Male Initiative Summit, which is in its ninth year now.

DAN:               Wow, congrats.

LEON:             Thank you. It started out with about 32 community members, faculty, staff, and students. We thought that if we can get them in a common space together and ask questions, have informal conversations, bring a motivational speaker in to kind of hit on some of those things, keep them energized and motivated, then from their feedback, build programs and assistance around what they're asking for. So, that's been the model.

DAN:               So the program goals initially related to closing an equity gap?

LEON:             Yes.

DAN:               But for the individual, what sort of things do you focus on for them? What kind of goals are you helping the individuals with?

LEON:             Specifically for them, it's their academic goals. "What are you here for? What were your initial thoughts or what was your initial intention when you came to the college? What did you come to do? How do we keep you connected to that?"

We have a very comprehensive model at the institution where we offer just a lot of things that help students, but unfortunately a lot of times, students don't know that those things are available, how to connect themselves to it. Once we have the students, the resources, and the mentors in one space, they're really excited about, "Wow. I didn't know this. I can do this now. I can go to this person. This doesn't seem as hard as I first thought it would be." We have a lot of that as a result.

DAN:               Are there certain things that black men are facing, specific, that this program is helping them address?

LEON:             I think that a lot happens to be the holistic aspect of being a black male and, socially, what you bring into the environment. It's those things can't be taken off. When you bring in those social challenges into the academic space, how do you navigate that as well?

DAN:               Can you give me some examples?

LEON:             When we talk about the police brutality, right? Or being the only minority in the classroom, those cultural differences, how do you navigate that feeling when you're in an academic space? Your perception of what your experiences are socially and what that looks like academically. How do you parallel the two or navigate through those feelings and not place, prematurely, what that experience in an academic space can be, as a result of what social experiences you've had?

DAN:               So, I'm kind of hearing that you may be facing financial challenges, family issues, as everyone else is, but you overlay some of these other issues. You can't just take those other issues and put them aside and say, "Well, they don't apply here because I'm dealing with this right now." It just all comes to bear-

LEON:             Absolutely.

DAN:               ... altogether.

LEON:             Yep.

DAN:               Tell me a little bit about yourself. We've talked about what students go through and their transformation. To get where you are now, have you found that you've gone through some different transformations in your life?

LEON:             Absolutely. So I started out, surprisingly enough, as many of the students that I've come into contact here in my position as the retention advisor in Student Achievement and Success Program, and even now as the Director of Student Engagement, but first-generation college student tested into developmental education, started at the community college, went to the... transferred to the small, liberal arts college, predominantly white institution in the rural West Virginia, then transferred to West Virginia University, where I got my masters. A lot of my undergraduate experience kind of shaped and molded me for Student Affairs.

DAN:               In what way?

LEON:             What I saw when I attended my undergraduate at West Virginia Wesleyan was a lot of the students who I could identify with, minority students, weren't persisting. They would be there one semester and gone the next. I always asked the question, "Why? What's missing? Why aren't students staying? Why aren't my friends coming back?"

DAN:               Why weren't students coming back? What was happening?

LEON:             It's the support. It's support, and it's finances. I don't think any of that, historically, has changed, unfortunately, but it's really ... and then it's also a fit of the institution, finding how students feel welcomed or that connection, making sure students feel connected to the institution. That's all those things. Building a community. Students finding their community and being supported in that way. Not necessarily assuming how students fit, but allowing students to find their fit, and providing those opportunities.

DAN:               Were those the kinds of challenges that you, personally, were facing, as well? Or were there some other challenges that you were facing?

LEON:             I think, initially, I may have been challenged with some of those fits, me finding my fit in that way, but I'm a very curious person. I'm okay with thriving on my own, but I also like the interactions and the energy of people.

The first thing I did when I got on campus was kind of try to find where do I connect? Where are the people that have the same mission and goal type of thing that I want to pursue? I found those organizations in our Black Student Union, or in the performance choir, or in the multicultural affairs office. I was able to receive my supports in that way.

DAN:               It feels like you've come full circle.

LEON:             Yes.

DAN:               You had some mentors.

LEON:             Absolutely.

DAN:               How important were they in your life? What did they do for you?

LEON:             Mentorship, for me, has been critical. As I mentioned, the mentors have the ability or the skill to see potential in you past what you see for yourself.

Academically, when I got to West Virginia Wesleyan, there was an individual who exposed me to academic spaces and resources that helped me to be successful. I didn't think that I would go to grad school. I was one-and-done. I was like, "Let me get this bachelor's degree. This is a lot going on. I don't have the funds." I was on a partial scholarship. The debt was rising.

She connected me with the colloquium at the West Virginia University where I had a graduate research assistanceship. I went to grad school for free, ultimately. I would not have sought out that opportunity on my own. As a mentor, she exposed me to some of those environments or some of those possibilities and saw in me that, "You can continue this, and you're doing well. You have it to do. You have the capacity to be successful."

When career-wise, there again, there has been individuals who have saw or have taken a risk in my skillsets or seeing that I can lead in a way beyond what I thought I could or giving me enough responsibility to say, "You can do this, and I trust your judgment on it. It looks insurmountable. It looks hard. It looks challenging, but you'll do fine."

DAN:               So you continued to have mentors?

LEON:             I continued to have mentors. I don't think one mentor is enough. I have expert mentors in whatever area in my life I want to see grow, I need someone who is an expert in that area to guide me through in that way.

DAN:               Do you see this with students, too? Do you encourage them to have multiple mentors, grow in certain areas?

LEON:             Absolutely. I call it my "executive team". I have my own "board of trustees" within my life to say-

DAN:               Everybody needs their own executive team.

LEON:             Everybody needs their own executive team.

DAN:               I love that.

LEON:             I encourage them to, "Where do you want to go? You figure out who are the experts that will be able to support you in accomplishing that goal? It may be one person. However, typically, it's not. If you're here at the college, and you want to pursue a particular skill or particular degree, who in this environment can support you in building or in accomplishing that goal? How do you go about building that into your executive team?"

DAN:               It really takes a process to identify the areas you want to grow in and then go and seek out those mentors to say, "This is where I want to grow. I need help in that way."

LEON:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DAN:               Do you see students rising to that challenge?

LEON:             I won't say that I see them rising. Some of them do take the initiative, but sometimes it takes that exposure and having that conversation. When students arrive at the college, they may not be as forthright in saying, "I'm just going to get connected. This is where I want to go. AACC can be intimidating for the first-time attending student. What do you do with that? I think that's why those spaces, like the Student Achievement and Success Program, the Black Male Initiative, Student Engagement, those space are important. A lot of information that students will get will come from other students, so putting you in spaces of other students to have that conversation and you receive it a different way. Or it may be confirmations of, "I heard Mr. Leon say this, but now that you're saying it, I know that it's really effective and true." Sometimes it's not just enough to come from an administrator or a faculty member, but from student to student, they really do communicate and trust each other overall.

DAN:               I would feel that there was some risk involved. First-generation and then going off to this small, liberal art ... Tell me about what you perceived as the risks that you were taking.

LEON:             I wasn't completely 100% sure if I was going to be successful in transferring from the community college to the liberal arts college, but the reward outweighed the risk. I was willing to take the risk because where I was coming from, the potential to do better was greater. I was willing to experience whatever pressures necessary to turn that experience.

DAN:               How did that change your self-perception?

LEON:             It surprises me. It really shows that you actually are equipped to address a lot of those challenges that you kind of shy away from. It has really made me redefine how I look at myself, which has been rewarding intrinsically and extrinsically because I can share my story with students. I have felt that way. I have thought those things. I've experienced that I haven't been the straight-A student. That's not my testimony. I've been suspended from high school. I've received Fs on my transcript, all those kind of things. But on the other side of that, I still have been able to define success for myself.

DAN:               That must really resonate with students.

LEON:             Absolutely. Yep.

DAN:               It seems that the things that you're describing, all of us go through. Kind of getting a better sense of who we are ... But in your own experience as a black man, as you said, with the Black Male Initiative, there are some other things sort of overlaying that. How have you experienced that and addressed that for your own life?

LEON:             I feel my approach is I'm not excluded from those experiences, but I also want to be a part of the conversations moving forward. So placing myself in spaces where those conversations can be had. Not speaking on behalf of an entire community, but what are some of the things that we can do to turn or to kind of lessen the challenge or the experiences of those spaces that we can? Particularly if I'm in this space here, at the community college, what is the environment that we're building that would minimize students' stress level or what their perceptions are in experiencing this space with those that overlay of experience that they bring with them? That's kind of how I address it.

Then even when I attended West Virginia, of course, if I think back, wow, I was one of three men in my education department and the only black male in my education department. I was the first black male as an officer for the West Virginia Education Association. Being in those spaces and allowing those experiences to happen, sometimes uncomfortable, indeed. However, just bringing a sense of experience to others with the perceptions that they have and fighting those perceptions has been rewarding and has really helped me to move through those spaces.

As a black male, first generation student, Leon began his college experience much like Marshall. By seeking out friends and mentors who shared his mission and goals, Leon has and continues to define his own success. Part of that success is his current work helping others connect, persist and succeed.

How has Marshall continued to persist? What supports has he sought out? How has he redefined himself?

MARSHALL:   I was thinking about being a motivational speaker, but I'm not still sure if I want to do that. Because I do a lot of videos sometime on social media about or I have done in the past about trying to motivate people.

DAN:               Really?


I've seen a lot of my friends, I guess, feel like they don't belong, where they're going through struggles, too. Because a lot of my friends were in college, too. And I feel like when we come together as one, that light shines brighter versus when you go out there alone by yourself.

DAN:               Sounds like this notion of fitting in and belonging has been very important to you?

MARSHALL:   Yeah.  

DAN:               Was the Men of Color essential to that or was it just finding people here at the college or finding that you... What made the difference for you?

MARSHALL:   Let me see. Fitting in is more of a thing that I had to overcome with myself. I had to keep telling myself that I have potential too. I used to see a lot of negativity, but  I guess what broke that was the fact I had to look into myself and just see that I'm a person, too. So if they can do it, so can I. I had to break the barrier.

DAN:               And so what do you see now?

MARSHALL:   I see that I'm capable of anything.

DAN:               Sounds like you haven't gone it alone. So who've been the biggest influences?

MARSHALL:   I want to say my parents because they've always stuck by me ever since I came here. So they just keep telling me the you just got to hang in there and just keep going.

Like when you fail, it's not that you just fail. It's that you learn from your mistakes. And that you learn how to correct it the second time, so that when you do it over again, let me see, you get it right. But also you don't make the same mistakes.

DAN:               So, if you were to say that you redefined yourself, how would you say that you've redefined yourself?

MARSHALL:   I think when you say you redefine yourself, you have to look at like a house. There are many levels, but before you can have many levels, you have to make sure that the concrete is sturdy enough. So that when the levels are built, you can walk up each level knowing that you've gained more confidence.

DAN:               I like that comparison, that analogy. What level did you build upon that has given you such a solid foundation?

MARSHALL:   So when I first came here, I took the English classes because I needed to get my writing skills up. So I'm pretty good at English. So I got through the English classes and that helped me to gain experience with not only writing but to just be creative with myself. To tell, I guess, my own story.

DAN:               So what do you see for yourself in the future?

MARSHALL:   After college, I want to get a job in the lodging area of the hospitality field. Something like a Marriott. I'm not sure exactly what I want to do in the lodging field. That's what I'm trying to find out. I'm thinking hotel operations.

DAN:               And that obviously would allow you to travel.


I really want to do a lot of traveling and just meeting new people.

DAN:               Sounds like good goals.

Anything else that you want to share, that we've touched on?

MARSHALL:   I guess leaving here, as I look back on all of all the years, I guess the most important thing would be to... No matter the outcome, you can't look at yourself as a failure. You have to look at everything as a successful situation.

DAN:               With each new experience-

MARSHALL:   Comes a new milestone. Yeah.

Some high school graduates arrive at college with their foundation complete. Some need help getting started. Others need encouragement to keep going when the bad weather sets in. 

Many students face challenges outside of the classroom — family, finances, transportation — but some have the additional overlay of being a first generation college student or coming from an at risk population. These students often need a little more support to persist through challenges and to discover that yes, they do belong.  

So many of the lessons from Marshall and Leon reflect those we’ve heard in previous episodes. We don’t have to face challenges by ourselves. As Leon said, we all need our own executive council. Connect with others who love what you do. And to paraphrase Marshall, look at each experience, not as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn.

With each new experience comes a new milestone.


Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College.
Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch.
Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard.
Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan, and Ben Pierce.

Special thanks to Marshall Campbell and Leon Thomas.

Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website:

I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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