Jonathan Henderson knows a thing or two about how a good support system can be critical to your success.
The 23-year-old sociology student at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) is set to graduate this spring, will begin his master’s in sociology program here on campus in the fall, was nominated for the Presidential Outstanding Student Award this year, has been an integral part of numerous groups on campus including Male Success Alliance (MSA), and volunteered countless hours to at-risk youth groups and the homeless community in the surrounding areas.
But according to Henderson, all of his accomplishments and achievements almost didn’t happen.
In fact, the now-exemplary student graduated high school with a barely passing grade point average (GPA) and had become disillusioned with the world of education.
Growing up, the Southern California native was given every opportunity at home to succeed at life. His father, a pastor and part time professor, and his mother, an assistant teacher, pushed their son to achieve his dreams and instilled in him a high priority for learning. Ironically, it wasn’t until he entered school that he became despondent with education.
“I was constantly told that I was never going to be anything, by students, as well as teachers and faculty members,” recalls Henderson, who is African American, about his years in kindergarten through high school. “I was ostracized daily, picked on, called every racial slur that one can think of and essentially treated like a deviant.”
In return, Henderson’s grades dropped as he slipped into a deep depression, often becoming angry and hostile with those around him.
“For the longest time, the expectations of society were louder than the expectations my parents had instilled in me,” he says.
Henderson would graduate from Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, Calif., with a 1.8 GPA, frustrated and disappointed by the lack of compassion he’d encountered in the educational system.
Henderson says things didn’t really start turning around in his life until after graduation when he participated in the Summer Bridge Program at MiraCosta Community College in San Diego that paired him with mentors and support services that encouraged him to go to college and introduced him to the world of sociology.
“Sociology has helped by providing me with the philosophical and theoretical framework needed to understand society,” says Henderson. “It’s helped me in my personal life as well.”
Shortly after completing the program, Henderson officially enrolled at MiraCosta, where he earned a 3.8 GPA his first semester. He transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills [two years later, or the year as a junior] as a sociology major with a minor in Africana studies.
At CSU Dominguez Hills, Henderson became involved with Male Success Alliance (MSA), a student support group whose mission is to improve access, retention, and graduation rates of young men of color through academic support, professional development, and mentoring. According to Henderson, the MSA provided him an outlet that invigorated his passion for student advocacy and diversity.
“MSA helps expose young men of color to college spaces and college thinking that they may not have seen in their own families and communities,” he said. “It’s an outlet for higher involvement.”
The organization was honored with the Outstanding Student Organization award this year at the fourth annual President’s Student Leadership and Service Awards. The award celebrates a student organization that has demonstrated extraordinary leadership through a wide array of programs and influenced involvement in campus life and the community. Henderson, who was also nominated individually for the Presidential Award for Outstanding Student, was at the awards ceremony to celebrate the group’s win, which he says was richly deserved.
“MSA not only does so much for its members, but they do a lot for young men who are still in middle school and high school,” Henderson says. “These guys get to see role models who are breaking those stereotypes of what being a black male is about. We’re not a statistic.”
Through his involvement with the group, Henderson has worked as an academic mentor at Crenshaw High School, tutoring at-risk high school students and encouraging them to go to college. He says he often sees a lot of his former self in those students.
“So often, these young men are told they’re incompetent or are treated like convicts,” said Henderson. He explains that they often feel just as dejected as he once did growing up, but that he realizes now that he would be considered one of the ”lucky” ones. “I grew up middle class, but a lot of them come from homes where even the basic necessities like food and shelter aren’t being met.”
Henderson says he tries to instill a level of mutual respect every time he sees the high school students because they often don’t receive that from their teachers or peers, who either are unaware of their home lives or do not give it much credence.
According to MSA project coordinator Matthew Smith, who has been Henderson’s mentor for two years, what makes Henderson so special is not just his accomplishments, but who he is as a person.
“Jonathan is a compassionate, dedicated, and generous individual,” Smith said. “His commitment to becoming the change he wants to see is inspiring. I am honored to call him a mentee, a brother and a member of our organization.”
Smith adds that Henderson is committed to “using what he has learned to transform the lives of those around him.”
Henderson has served as the vice president of the Pan African Union here on campus for two years and also been the vice president for the Organization of Africana Studies for a year. This year, he presented his research on black student engagement at the National Conference of Black Studies.
In addition, his position as an executive board member for the MSA has brought him to the forefront in organizing the group’s 5th annual spring summit to be held on May 8, which will bring together more than 700 middle school, high school and college-aged males to the CSU Dominguez Hills campus along with elected officials, faculty and staff. The conference is designed to equip young male students of color with the necessary tools and resources to be successful.
The summit’s theme, “Reclaiming Our Legacy,” aims to combine achievement, advocacy and advancement for its participants.
The event is an opportunity to showcase how the MSA is partnering with local schools to raise awareness and promote success, connect with other students who share common goals, build a professional and personal network and contacts, as well as hear from keynote speakers such as Jeff Duncan-Andrade, associate professor at San Francisco State University, who aims to teach young men how to empower themselves and their communities.
Though the annual summit is the MSA’s penultimate event of the year, Henderson says it is the group’s holistic view of engagement that is crucial to its success.
“What sets MSA apart is its emphasis on black and Latino male solidarity. It’s an actual organization on campus, and not just a once-in-a-year inspirational speech or event,” he said. “We have an emphasis on personal, ethnic and professional development. And the most important part of that is that the students are vital to each others’ success.
“I’ve seen that time and again, and the group has truly helped me move past so many of the difficulties I had experienced in my early education. This kind of support system is invaluable.”
Although the road has been long and at times difficult, Henderson says he’s both relieved to be graduating and looking forward to the rigors of graduate school.
“I can’t wait to be in a classroom where everyone’s on the same level, everyone knows their stuff and is just really invested in the topic,” Henderson says, adding that in addition to school, his next focus is the job market, specifically, working in student affairs at a university.
“I want to work for students and be involved in student advocacy and advisement,” Henderson said. “It’s made a big difference for me and I want to do the same for so many other people.”