Merlene Davis: College fair aimed at families who think college is beyond reach

Miriam Teresa Porter is a walking billboard for the nurturing attention students can receive from teachers and staff at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Without prompting, Porter talked about the "amazing teachers" who took time to give her the support she needed and the smaller class sizes there in comparison to the University of Kentucky, where she became the first Kentucky female African-American to graduate with a bachelor's degree in health administration.

"I come from a large family of six sisters and four brothers," said the Marion County High School graduate. "When I went to college, it was the first time I was known by my name. That hung with me."

Porter, 43, is the coordinator of the nuclear medicine department at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Ariz., and serves as the president of the Arizona Nuclear Medicine Society.

She holds two associate's degrees from BCTC, then known as Lexington Community College, along with the bachelor's degree from UK. She is working on her master's.

BCTC has named her one of two members of its new Super Sunday Hall of Fame.

The Kentucky Community and Technical College System, of which BCTC is one of 16 colleges, is hosting a statewide Super Sunday College Fair on Feb. 27 to recognize African-American alumni of its colleges and to recruit minority students and alert families who don't believe higher education is for them.

The event is based on a very successful initiative at California State University, which has hosted its fair since 2005.

The Kentucky event will be held in churches in the communities where the colleges are located. The Lexington fair will be at Consolidated Baptist Church, 1625 Russell Cave Road.

"We know churches are still an important part of the African-American and Latino communities," said Natalie Gibson, KCTCS's director of diversity. "They serve as a gathering place and where African-Americans feel empowered and have a voice.

"It's Marketing 101," she said. "You go where the audience is."

Since California State began its Super Sunday initiative, the number of African-Americans applying and enrolling has increased more than 50 percent.

"They started with one college and 23 sites," Gibson said. "Last year, their goal was 100 partner churches, and they almost made it. This year, their goal is 120 churches."

KCTCS wants to grow the number of churches it partners with after this year, as well.

Gibson said the community college system conducted research in 2006 that found that of 100 African-American ninth-graders, only eight would graduate from college.

"That is a very leaky pipeline," she said. "We are not exactly sure of the reason, but some feedback indicated one of the main questions is: 'How am I going to pay for it?' "

Gibson said the Super Sunday events will help families answer questions like that and guide those families to more viable employment opportunities.

Gibson said she wants students as early as fourth grade to participate with their families. "We can show them how to navigate admissions and how to pay for it," she said.

The initiative is focusing on African-American students this year because that racial group is the largest of the under-represented groups in the state. Others will be targeted in the future.

And when those students reach campus, Porter said, they will find teachers and staff who, "in a heartfelt way, genuinely care about the students."

Porter said she twice gave birth over Christmas breaks and had to bring the children to class sometimes. "I only got asked to leave class one time," she said, because of an unruly child.

And, she said, when she went back one year to visit a professor, he still had pictures of her children on his wall.

After earning her bachelor's degree, Porter returned to the community college for two technical associate's degrees, including one in applied science in nuclear medicine technology. She was the first African-American woman from Kentucky to graduate and be licensed in that field.

But hers is not the only success story.

James Barue Wilson, 39, graduated from LCC in 1999 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from UK. He is now the executive manager of escalation and resolution for AT&T.

The entire time he was in school, he worked full-time during the day, attended classes at night and, on weekends, served in the Marine Corps Reserves.

Both Porter and Wilson give a lot of credit for their success to Charlene Walker, now vice president of multicultural affairs at BCTC.

"She was my mentor for anything that dealt with the university," Wilson said. "She made sure that all the technical stuff was done: when to register, who to take, how the degree works in practical applications.

"When you have the support of a mother, that direction and that support, it is always going to be OK."

Wilson said the community-college system was flexible enough for him to finish at his own pace and led him in a direction that would give him the best employment opportunities. "Direction, flexibility and usable, marketable skills," he said. "You may not get that in the university system or on time."

"I found (at LCC) there had never been a problem that I experienced that they didn't know how to handle," Wilson said. "They pulled all the stumbling blocks out of the way.

"They were the party of yes," he said.