Two students from Ontario says the high tuition is worth it to attend Morehouse College, an elite college for black students in Georgia.
By: Matt Kwong Special to the Sta, Published on Wed Apr 17 2013
ATLANTA — Morehouse College, the only all-male, historically black college in America, has a legacy of privilege and excellence that can be intimidating to a young man from Jane and Finch.
Martin Luther King Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee and Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, were Morehouse men. Actor Denzel Washington sent his son there. Students at the liberal arts college in Atlanta attend lectures wearing blazers, boat shoes and browline glasses. At weekly assemblies, they clasp hands and recite a 19th-century hymn about brotherhood.
But even among the Morehouse elite, Nathaniel Goulbourne belongs to a rarefied class. The 23-year-old Torontonian is just one of two Canadians attending the college, drawn by the promise of a black higher-education experience not offered back home.
“It took some time to get used to things here. The environment, the South, hushpuppies, grits,” says Goulbourne, a senior accounting student who grew up in the Jane-Finch corridor.
“But I see a lot of growth in myself. And I definitely represent. People on campus are like, ‘Yeah, that guy’s Canadian.’ ”
Toronto’s high-school dropout rate among African Canadians is 40 per cent. To drive that number down, the Toronto District School Board launched an Africentric elementary school in 2009. A black-focused high-school program debuted last September.
MATT KWONG——Jan-Michael Coke, left, from Bolton, Ont., is studying kinesiology and sports medicine , and Nathaniel Goulbourne, who grew up in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, is studying accounting at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Lacking in Canada, however, is a post-secondary option tailored to black youths. It’s partly why Morehouse enticed Goulbourne.
“I thought a school like that would be the best incubator for my ideas,” he says, adding that he was frustrated by a dearth of “visible” African-Canadian icons, compared to America’s civil-rights luminaries and hip-hop moguls such as Sean Carter and Russell Simmons.
“I can’t dismiss people like Lincoln Alexander,” he says, “but I think many people would have to dig to find out about these figures.”
Statistics on the number of African-Canadians studying at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are spotty. The New York-based Institute of International Education, a non-profit organization promoting educational and cultural exchange, says that “close to 50” Canadian visa students were enrolled in 28 HBCUs in the U.S. in 2011-2012. But many of the remaining 77 HBCUs didn’t provide data to the institute’s Open Doors report on international students.
Three Canadians have graduated from Morehouse since May 2000. That will rise to five by the end of this year, when Goulbourne graduates with another Ontarian, 22-year-old Jan-Michael Coke, a kinesiology student from Bolton.
Coke, a left guard for the Morehouse Maroon Tigers football team, loves the GTA’s multi-ethnic diversity. But living in the South gave him a keen sense of heritage.
“It’s like being in the heart of black history,” says Coke, whose family moved to Stone Mountain, Ga., a suburb famous for a granite Confederate memorial etched into the side of a mountain.
“You see that carving, and consider what the Confederate flag and army represented — oppression, hardship,” he says. “Then you go to school and walk through the dorm where Martin Luther King spent time, you go through the chapel and see the pictures of great black history icons. It’s mind blowing.”
It’s also hard not to be mindful of race on campus. Morehouse regularly invites speakers who lived through segregation. In class, students philosophize about cultural capital, racial justice and Afrocentrism.
But amid those weighty subjects, here’s another big idea to chew on: Why African-Canadian scholars might feel compelled to go to the U.S. for inspiration to become community leaders back home. What edge do historically black colleges offer?
“It’s a matter of engagement,” says George Dei, a University of Toronto sociology professor and advocate for black-focused education. “If people feel the environment is not inclusive, they can’t identify with the learning environment. There’s a desire to feel a sense of belonging. I think that’s what these students were getting there.”
Dei says the African presence in Canada isn’t as celebrated as it is in the U.S., and argues that Canada should make more visible the contributions, achievements and sacrifices of “role models in our backyard — not just famous people or people in the media.”
Goulbourne, whose GPA is 3.8, credits an “iron sharpens iron” code for pushing him to become the top accounting major in his class. The idea is that Morehouse men raise the bar for each other.
“The motto is: I got my brother’s back,” Coke adds, recalling a time when he overslept, missed a seminar and woke up to pounding at his door. His classmates were outside, demanding that he explain his absence.
Coke made the honour roll for the first time last year. It’s hard to keep his grades high, he says, but that’s not the only challenge: He says it’s a struggle to pay the annual $26,000 tuition, particularly when schools in Toronto look so affordable by comparison.
“My father knew I really want to stay down here, but it was getting rough. We talked about making me go to York University.”
With help from extended family in Canada, Coke collected enough money to stay at Morehouse. He aspires to open his own rehabilitation clinic.
Goulbourne’s college education was also made possible by donors.
He met legendary Bay Street trader Michael Wekerle through a Toronto outreach program years ago and delivered a 20-minute presentation laying out his plan to graduate from Morehouse, reinvent himself as a prominent African-Canadian businessman and return to mentor kids from his Jane-Finch neighbourhood.
Wekerle was impressed. He agreed to finance Goulbourne’s $40,000 a year tuition and housing costs — on the condition that Goulbourne eventually “pay it forward” by sending another underprivileged Toronto youth to Morehouse once he establishes himself as a businessman.
“He’s probably one of the more successful stories I’ve seen in my life,” Wekerle says. “I’ll be going to his graduation, which I understand President Obama will be attending.”
Expectations for Goulbourne to make a positive noise are high, indeed immense.
That pressure was made ever more acute on a Tuesday morning last month when Goulbourne’s brother texted him with the tragic news that St. Aubyn Rodney, a 15-year-old with whom Goulbourne spent time at a Jane and Finch basketball program, had been shot in the stomach and killed.
“I went outside my class, crying,” Goulbourne says. “This was one of my little guys. I was talking to my brother and he just said, ‘Yo it’s crazy, but that’s why you’re over there. Kids are falling through the cracks. You just gotta work harder.’ ”
Goulbourne will return to Toronto in May for a four-month BMO investment-banking internship. He’s amped for a homecoming, he says. He’s excited to see the friends he used to hoop with at the Driftwood Community Centre, to smell Jamaican jerk chicken, to hear reggae on the local radio again. Most of all, he’s eager to connect again with neighbourhood kids and present himself as the kind of African-Canadian success story he yearned to meet when he was growing up.
“It’s interesting because I almost feel uneasy when I come home. I see the growth in myself, but I see that everything is exactly the same at home,” he says. “Here I am, about to graduate from Morehouse, and I’m like, I really have this calling to go back home. I want to change things, give someone the same opportunities I had. That’s what it’s always been about.”