"As a young person, school didn't go very well for me," remembers Jonathan Henderson, an alumnus of California State University, Dominguez Hills and project coordinator of the campus's just-opened The Rose Black Resource Center. "It wasn't necessarily because of a lack of intellect or discipline. It was the environment I was in."          

Growing up in a middle-class area of Oceanside, California, Henderson was often the only African American in the classroom.

"It was just plain racism that was heaped on me," he says. "Teachers told me I would not amount to anything. Neighbors and classmates called me the n-word and other racial slurs on a daily basis. I didn't want to go to school, because frankly, back then no one really cared about me."  

Despite loving parents, Henderson graduated from high school with a 1.8 GPA. "If your parents are your only support system, but the rest of society is not supporting you, then you don't get everything you need in terms of access, safety and things like that," he says.

All of that changed for Henderson with a Summer Bridge program at Mira Costa Community College, where the focus was on sociology and counseling; Bruce  Hoskins, Ph.D., an associate professor there, took interest in him and guided him professionally and personally.

As he was looking to transfer to a four-year institution, Henderson recalls, "someone from Cal State Dominguez Hills came to talk on campus, and the first thing she said was that the university was very diverse. And I was like, What does 'diverse' mean?"

 

Finding a Cultural Home

"When I got to Dominguez Hills, it was a culture shock for me, but a good culture shock," says Henderson about the ethnic plurality among students and faculty on campus.

"I hadn't grown up where the majority of individuals were people of color. It wasn't something I had experienced other than church on Sunday."

He marveled, he says, at a feeling of normalcy. "I remember going into the bookstore and nobody followed me around. And in class, the professors were also African American or Latino. I knew that this was a place where I could be myself, be involved and grow."

Henderson majored in sociology and minored in Africana Studies, and Associate Professor of Sociology Jose Prado, Ph.D., helped him find his way.

"He is the person that organized my mind in terms of how to write and how to structure arguments that are clear and concise," he says. "He and other professors taught me how to think critically, and that was life-changing for me."

His master's thesis chair, Assistant Professor of Sociology Jeb Middlebrook, Ph.D., he adds, "took the time and interest to not only look over my thesis and grade my papers, but really talked to me about the relationship between my scholarship, my career and my life."

Studying sociology also put his younger days into perspective.

"I thought all of the things that happened to me were my fault, and it had a profound effect on my self-esteem. But in sociology, I learned about concepts like labeling theory, and I could see patterns in data where students were marginalized, especially in K-12, all over the country," he says.

Labeling theory holds that individuals may see themselves and behave based on a label given to them by society, such as "criminal" or "deviant."

"I realized that my experiences weren't just my problem. That revelation gave me the ability to master my own experience and get through it."

In 2014, Henderson earned his bachelor's, finishing with a 3.2 GPA. He was recognized, too, by the CSU and the U.S. Congress for outstanding community service and went on to earn a master's in sociology at CSUDH in 2016 with a 3.9 GPA. "It's clear to me that a person's cultural esteem greatly affects their outcomes," he says.

 

 

 

Transforming the Lives Around Him

During his junior year, Henderson was recruited by CSU Dominguez Hills' Male Success Alliance (MSA) and took a paid position with the organization as a mentor. MSA works to improve access, retention and graduation rates among young men of color.

"MSA is different than any other club or organization on campus because it employs students to go into the community and work with the local middle and high schools," says Henderson, who went to Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles to work with black and Latino male students in a daily professional development class.

"Our curriculum is organized around leadership, social justice, personal development, and professional development—anything from tying neckties to sociological concepts like institutionalized racism," he explains.

"I'm going to be very honest: A lot of our urban schools treat our students like convicts, especially African American and Latino males," he adds. "In MSA, we treat our students first and foremost with respect. In turn, they treated us with the same respect. MSA is a brotherhood, and your brother's job is to make sure you succeed in life. The high school students really took to that."

While a master's student, Henderson became a graduate assistant for MSA and took on a supervisory role, creating the student curriculum and managing schedules. He also helped organize the annual Spring Summit on the CSUDH campus; the day-long event hosts more than 900 middle and high school students with workshops, lunch and campus tours.

During the summers, MSA works with Read Lead, a literacy program for underserved children in Los Angeles County. "In my sociology classes, they encouraged us to be civically engaged," Henderson says. "What MSA did for me was transformative because it allowed me to put what I was learning from my courses into practice."

His leadership experience and immersion in community work helped him decide on a career in higher education; he started his job as The Rose Black Resource Center's inaugural project coordinator in fall 2016. The center's name—chosen by students—is taken from a poem by the late rapper and poet Tupac Shakur.

Henderson plans to pursue a Ph.D. "My dream job would be to direct African American initiatives for the CSU or UC system," he says. "I would like to make African American student success not just a focus but a priority in higher education."  
 

Impacting a Community on Campus

In 2015, African American university students across the nation were demanding programs and facilities that ensured safety and social justice for people of color.

"The students at Dominguez Hills did the same, and one of the things they asked for was a Black Resource Center designed to be a safe space for African American students on campus," explains Henderson.

"We really want to lead the charge for graduation retention and the success of African American students," he adds. "One of the things that the administration is very clear about is the task of recruiting and retaining black students."

Henderson's strong support of current students is reflected in the long days he puts in as he works on assignments for the labor studies practicum he teaches and the programs he's planning for the new center.

"The faculty and staff at Dominguez Hills took a specific interest in my growth and development. They make a concerted effort to make sure you get where you want to go," says Henderson. "I want to do the same thing."