Smooth Transition: New Program Prepares Men of Color for Life at UTC

Current University of Tennessee at Chattanooga undergraduates are assisting incoming MOC Academy students with advice, mentorship and simple friendship. From left: UTC student mentor Juan Aponte, incoming first-year students Alvin and Albert Bolden, and mentor Donald Webb. Photo by Angela Foster.

By Shawn Ryan 

Alvin Bolden was born 21 minutes before his twin Albert. It might not seem like much, but Alvin insists it is.

“Twenty-one minutes. Makes a difference,” he said while Albert sat next to him with an expression of “Yeah, right. Heard this before.”

The fraternal twins are connected by more than just birthdays and DNA. This fall, they’ll leave their home in Dyersburg, Tennessee, to be freshmen at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Alvin will major in electrical engineering while Albert will pursue a degree in graphic design.

Any nerves?

“A tiny bit,” Alvin said, holding his index finger and thumb a tiny bit apart. “If I’m not confident about it, I know I’ll be extremely scared. So I’ve just got to be confident.”

To build confidence for their new adventure, the twins enrolled in MOC Academy, a newly created, year-long program for male students of color at UTC. National numbers show men of color don’t do as well enrolling and staying in college, said Jason Harville, assistant director of Student Success Programs.

“It’s the trend nationwide, so it’s not unique to us,” he said. “Looking at those numbers and knowing that a diverse campus is important, increasing those numbers is important.”

MOC Academy was developed to address the issue, he explained.

“When these males see this program and hear about this program, it shows that the University is placing importance on them being here,” Harville said.

When they heard about MOC Academy, the Bolden twins had the same first impression.

“Honestly, it just seemed like a good idea. A really good idea. I had a good vibe from it,” Alvin said.

“It’s the same thing that you said,” Albert added, pointing at his brother. “Just having a good vibe about it. Also, one thing you didn’t mention is that there was a little bit of pestering from our parents.”

With 13 students, the program started in a virtual format in late June before moving to the UTC campus on July 9. The on-campus experience includes a daily course that helps the students “transition into UTC and focuses on many topics, including time management, academic success and diversity,” Harville said.

Incoming first-year University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students Albert and Alvin Bolden, part of the inaugural MOC Academy, stand outside Patten House.

“This version of the course covers all these topics but is taught keeping in mind the lens through which the MOC Academy scholars will see the campus as males of color.”

Rooming together in Stagmaier Hall housing, the students also have time to hang out, a key part of the program.

A group of current UTC male students of color are helping MOC Academy members with advice, mentorship and simple friendship. Their main goal, mentors say, is to show the new students that they’re not alone.

Getting involved in campus organizations and activities, not being afraid to meet new people and knowing about support services are some of the major lessons that MOC Academy students need to know.

“I want to make them feel welcome, make them feel like they have community here,” said mentor Juan Aponte, a senior in political science.

Coming to UTC from his home in Puerto Rico was Aponte’s first time away from home, and he needed help to adjust.

“I didn’t have any family, didn’t know anybody here, and that community building made me feel like I had a place to go,” he said. “Just talk to someone; that really impacted me as a freshman. And it made me seek these opportunities out.”

Donald Webb, a sophomore in education and a MOC Academy mentor, said getting involved in campus organizations such as the Black Student Alliance during his freshman year made him more comfortable.

“I’m very introverted, so I made myself a promise to get out there,” he said.

Mentor Ayub Farah, a junior in exercise science, said he hopes to help those in MOC Academy “find a safe space” and avoid some of the issues he faced after moving from Memphis to attend UTC.

“Being able to navigate scholarships, academia, especially in a predominantly white society, you’re not that comfortable sometimes. So having a safe space is really important,” he said.

Through MOC Academy, Alvin (the “oldest” Bolden twin) said he has enjoyed “meeting new people and getting away from home a little bit, but also I want to grow as a person.”

“I want to get more experience. I want to learn more. I want to be able to apply the skills that I have or that I will learn in order to help others,” he said.

“Picked the words right out of my mouth,” Albert added.