Our year-long series on College of Marin’s (COM) Umoja program continues with a Student Spotlight. Join us in 2021 as we explore how COM’s Umoja program empowers students, promotes unity, and builds community and equity.
Nequeshé Dyer currently works at College of Marin as an administrative assistant in the Office of Student Activities. Dyer was one of the founding student assistants of COM’s Umoja Learning Community and worked at the program’s front desk to greet everyone who entered Umoja’s Village space. The reason this series is called Tuesday Breakfasts with Umoja is because of her creation of the program’s core Tuesday / Thursday Breakfasts. Her affable personality, initiative to talk with others to solve issues, and willingness to be a team player while also knowing when and how to be a leader made her a key figure in the growth and success of COM’s Umoja program.
Her time at COM all began when Dyer was living in the East Bay and working in Marin for a few years after high school. She decided to start taking some classes here and there on subjects she was interested in at COM. It wasn’t long before she thought about getting a degree. At first she took classes while working to support herself and young daughter, and then an opportunity came up that allowed her to be a student fulltime.
She had already discovered some of the programs COM offered, such as Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) which helps first-generation college students who qualify for financial aid with additional academic and financial advising, services, and support systems. It helps students navigate college to reach their educational and career goals. It took Dyer a couple of years before she began to fully leverage all of the tutoring services, fee waivers, and other opportunities the college offers students.
“I got turned on to various programs once I started going fulltime,” says Dyer. “Because, as somebody who had been working really hard since I was 16, and relatively self-sufficient, I never considered myself somebody who would be eligible for other kinds of support programs, book grants, and these sorts of things that would make it possible for someone who is a working lower-middle-class person to be able to go to school.”
She started using financial aid because it was available to her, but had she known more about how it worked, she would have done things differently. “When I work with students today, I let them know to really think about when to start using financial aid,” says Dyer. “I tell them that if I had understood more about the limitations around it, I wouldn’t have taken it out at first. Financially, community college is very manageable. I would have banked that until I transferred to a university, because there's nothing else to help you pay for college. When I finally got to the university level, they told me I only had one year of financial aid left, which was unfortunate.’”
Experiences like these show the different aspects college students need to traverse to successfully complete college. As an EOPS student, Dyer was already seeing COM’s EOPS Counselor Rinetta Early, who at that time also happened to be developing COM’s new Umoja Community with Instructors Walter Turner and Bonnie Borenstein.
Dyer remembers first hearing about Umoja during a meeting with Counselor Early who asked Dyer to be a one of the student assistants. Dyer recalls feeling “very honored. I am someone who is a reluctant leader. Some people would disagree with that, but I’m not somebody who’s going to be the first person to volunteer for anything. But if there’s no one else, then I’ll step up, because we have stuff we have to do. For as outgoing and as energetic as I can be, I’m also very happy to be quiet and sit in the back. It’s important to me for other people around me to be comfortable, so I will always be looking to bring people in.”
As a learning community, COM Umoja’s purpose is specifically to increase the retention, success, graduation, and transfer rates for students of African ancestry, though all COM students are welcome to join. It began because COM Umoja’s founders noticed Black and African American students and students of color at COM were having a difficult time getting through the college process to successfully graduate. Umoja would offer students a support network and a physical place where they could ask questions, get help, and learn how to navigate college in a supportive environment from people they could relate to in a place they felt they belonged. Dyer’s ability to bring people in was exactly what the program needed to help it get on its feet.
As a student assistant, Dyer attended the initial Umoja meetings with COM faculty and staff. She decided to visit Chabot College to talk with one of their Umoja Community founders, Tom Reed, to see what they were doing. Dyer wanted to find something she could do that would directly affect students. She proposed starting a breakfast program so students would have something to eat before going to class. The Umoja team gave her a budget and she developed the program.
“I thought, ‘what can we do for folks that is going to impact them?” states Dyer. “It’s hard to focus on learning when you’re hungry and it was something we could do that wouldn’t be a big hit to the budget. It has been refined over the years. We even invited the president who made the mistake of saying to me, ‘we’d love to do a breakfast for you all.’ I said to him, ‘I’ll be cashing in on that offer.’ We did and he ended up making a pancake breakfast for us with the other deans, VPs, and directors. It was really nice.”
Quickly, Dyer became a student leader for the Umoja program. Once Umoja got its own space on campus, she began working at the front desk to check students in and give new Umoja students a tour and information on what the Umoja program was. Dyer became the face of COM Umoja, and was one of the reasons the program became so successful.
“After someone became an Umoja member,” states Dyer, “I would make sure they knew about our resources, like tutoring, and get them connected with Rinetta or Troy Stevenson, our Umoja counselors. I would encourage them to come on breakfast days and would make sure they felt comfortable and knew I was there for them. I’m very adaptable talking with people. If it was an athlete, I would talk to them in a different way than I would to a nursing student. Then, I linked students with other students who could help them. I was never anyone’s supervisor, but I was the one everybody went to ask questions to because I was the one who was always there.”
Students gravitated to Dyer, as she was easy to talk with and extremely knowledgeable of how COM’s system worked because her own experiences. Being a student, she was able to give other students sound advice. One point was to never be afraid to have a conversation with their professors. She gave an example of a professor who, on the first day of class, would say to students that he didn’t want to hear about any problems students had as to why they didn’t get the work done for class. It made students afraid to talk to him. A situation came up where Dyer needed extra time. She decided to talk with this instructor whom she found ended up being one of the nicest people around and gave her extra time. Her starting the conversation with the instructor also made the class more enjoyable and engaging.
Through conversations with instructors, Dyer has been able to change some teaching styles, allowing students to take pictures of notes on the chalk board before the instructor erases them, adding more time for questions on complex topics, and changing instructor policy to be more considerate of what students may be going through.
“I would encourage students and instructors to have conversations and share their own experiences,” says Dyer. “I had a geography teacher, Dr. Dana Quick. In her classes’ introduction, she shares her story that she didn't go straight from high school to college to get her PhD. She's an older learner. She even dropped out at one point and went back. Having faculty humanizing themselves is one thing I always share out from the student perspective to faculty. It helps to hear from faculty what it was like for them going to school. It also helps faculty remember what they went through. You don't know what people have going on. There are students here who live in their cars. They haven’t eaten today. So, it’s important to take a moment to recognize that not everybody's coming from the same place. That’s why my advice to folks is just communicate.”
Dyer also advises Umoja students to take the initiative. “Get involved in programs like Umoja. Instead of asking, ‘why are they doing this?’ Or ‘why aren’t they doing that?’ If there are things you want to see changed, try to do something about it. Own something, because it makes you feel better, and then at least that's getting done. You don't have control over everything else. But you can take some initiative and say, ‘I'm going to do this one thing that’s something I feel I can commit to,’ and do it. Do what you can when you can.”
All the contributions Dyer made to Umoja’s program while at the Village’s front desk helped to create a cohesive family atmosphere where COM Umoja students came for a bite to eat before class to catch up with others and get support from a community of people like Dyer who listened, gave relevant advice, and were there to ensure students got what they need to successfully navigate college. Dyer helped to make Umoja a place where students felt they belonged.
Today, Dyer is still involved in COM Umoja part-time while working at the Student Activities office, and is working towards her bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State in African Studies with a minor in either program coordinating or counseling to then get a master’s degree in counseling. She wants to better position herself to possibly play a bigger role in Umoja, or at the very least be more informed for her 10 year-old daughter, Dominique, who is half African American and half Mexican.
“There are a lot of things in my life, academically and culturally, that I have not dove into, just because it's painful. Our history is painful. But as a parent, I've got to push past that, because it's so important for my daughter to be educated. She’s also half Mexican, so I say to her, ‘you need this education to know all you can know, because if you don't, forever you'll have somebody else telling you what to do – where you can and can't be, what you can and can't do.’ I just try to impress upon her the importance of education.”
“I did a student panel at COM in front of faculty and staff a few years back, and someone said, ‘do you have anything you want to say to students of color?’ I answered ‘I would say, ‘you belong, period. You belong. Remember that you don’t have control over other people, but you always have control over how you handle your business. There are a lot of things that are within your power and within your control. If you ever you feel yourself in a peculiar situation, then communicate, communicate, communicate. Because again, a conversation can go a long way.”
In her current position in COM’s Student Activities office, she is encouraging those organizing student government and student clubs to be accountable to themselves. “I tell them to try to be organized, to do what they can to not get overwhelmed and utilize their resources. These are things that I didn't do. There was no Umoja Community when I was in my earlier days. And if you get to a place where you feel overwhelmed, go through your syllabi and look at the value of what is due. It might not be worth spending half a day on an assignment that's worth two points. Let those two points go. I had a one-unit class where I worked so hard, I finally thought, ‘why have I aged five years in a one-unit class?’ I try to encourage students to be mindful while still having fun. Because I'm silly and I’m going to be me no matter what, because that's all I can do.”
Find our first story on Umoja here.
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