On a rain-soaked, blustery morning, Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez joined about 1,800 congregants Sunday at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park in song and prayer. He beseeched black families to help their children go to college, which he called “the necessary admission ticket to good jobs and a middle-class lifestyle.”
“In today’s booming high-tech economy,” he said, “higher education has replaced a high school diploma as the gateway to a better life.”
To increase diversity throughout the California State University system, an army of outreach workers statewide is visiting more than 110 black churches with more than 100,000 total congregants this month in the annual “Super Sunday” program.
Gonzalez, who has made a recruiting pilgrimage to St. Paul’s almost every year as part of “Super Sunday” since 2005, told the congregation that California State University, Sacramento, is “committed to lead the way in the elimination of the achievement gap.” Gonzalez said about 6 percent of Sacramento State’s 29,000 students are black, including more than 100 from St. Paul, and he hopes the church will help supply black leaders of the future.
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He told the story of one of those leaders, Chinonyerem “Nonye” Kamalu. When she arrived from Nigeria in 2004, college seemed a distant dream. Kamalu supported herself by working at a home for elderly people with development disabilities, putting some of her earnings aside for college.
She and the other caregivers would bring the patients to church on Sundays, and on one of those visits in 2005 she first heard Gonzalez talk about the low number of black students at Sacramento State. “He said, ‘It’s not OK,’ and talked about the many resources they have to train leaders,” she said.
Kamalu heard Gonzalez pitch Sacramento State again in 2006 and again in 2007, when it finally kicked in.
“I thought, ‘He’s talking directly to me. It’s time to go back to school so I can make a larger impact in the world through social work,’” Kamalu recalled. She went on to receive degrees in psychology, liberal arts, general education and social science at American River College and graduated from Sacramento State last May as winner of the President’s Award, one of the university’s highest honors.
Reached at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she won a fellowship to complete her master’s and doctorate degrees in social work, Kamalu, 34, said Sacramento State lived up to Gonzalez’s promises.
“They have a compassionate staff that can walk you through the admissions and financial aid process and keep you on track,” she said. “When you get to a school that huge, it’s very difficult to transition, but I followed what (Gonzalez) said and connected with staff and students he recommended.”
A key mentor was Jackie Morris-Henderson, president of the black alumni chapter, “who was always looking out for me,” Kamalu said. “If I had issues with any classes, I visited my professors during office hour. When you have that one-on-one interaction, you might be able to understand the material better.”
Kamalu, who wants to return to Sacramento State as a professor, said her love of children has inspired her to work with young autism patients and children with disabilities. She said that there are more black women than men at Sacramento State, which she attributed to a lack of male mentors in black circles.
The first young person to approach Gonzalez for help Sunday was Quanisha Sims, 26, who recently moved from the Merced area with her 4-year-old son, Omari. “I’d like to become a counselor and a choir teacher,” Sims said. “I’m definitely going to give him a call.”
One of the ushers at Sunday’s service, Monet Newt, also said she had been motivated by Gonzalez.
“I’d just graduated from Sacramento High and was thinking about Cal State Fullerton and Virginia State when he came to church,” recalled Newt, 22. She said she attended Sacramento State for three years to pursue her dream of becoming a CHP officer.
When her money ran out – tuition and fees are about $8,000 a year before books and living costs – “I had to stop and go to work,” said Newt, now a parking attendant at Sleep Train Arena. “I hope to go back in the fall of 2017. I loved it.”
Gonzalez’s message resonated with Dwight Jordan, an X-ray technician who saw one of his three sons graduate from UC Berkeley. “It means a lot to me for (Gonzalez) to be here, because it shows someone really cares about this community and this church,” said Jordan, 63.
Gonzalez, 69, urged the adults in the audience to get on board. “It takes only one influential adult to help solidify a student’s interest in going to a university.” Students who need help in math can attend the school’s Summer Algebra Institutes, and there are similar programs in the humanities, he said.
Lamont Harris, administrative assistant to St. Paul’s pastor, Ephraim Williams, said the relationship Gonzalez has fostered with the church has helped reduce “some of the challenges African American students faced in getting into and staying in college.” Williams, who got his master’s degree in social work from Sacramento State, hopes to launch a similar program with UC Davis.
Sacramento State’s outreach Sunday also included a visit by Vice Provost James Prince to Antioch Progressive Church in south Sacramento.
After the Sunday services, Sacramento State officials manned tables to answer admissions questions. For more information, call the admissions office at (916) 278-7766 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.