What Works: Chapter 8, Why Is It So Important to Engage College Men?

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

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Why Is It So Important to Engage College Men?
By Dr. Gar Kellom

The obvious answer to this question is because there is a serious imbalance in college male engagement where men total only one-third of the students volunteering, studying abroad, taking internships, using tutoring, or availing themselves of counseling or health services. In fact, the main areas of student services where men excel in numbers are in the disciplinary system and completing suicide attempts(three of four are men). Having devoted a career in student development to trying to address these disparities, I am inclined to focus on this topic and to the imbalance of under-represented men in the admissions process, in TRIO programs for first generation students, low income students, students with disabilities, or in student parent centers. My current work (thanks to funding from the Office of Adolescent Health and the Minnesota Department of Health) focuses on engaging college and teenage student fathers who would otherwise have only a one in ten chance of obtaining a four-year college degree because they have a child.

While this work is significant, it is still not addressing the core of the matter. The second answer to this question I would offer, therefore, is that we should engage college men in order to "touch their hearts." In a grant funded by the Lilly Endowment to run pilot projects at 14 different colleges and universities across the country to identify the best practices to engage college men, Keith Daniels of Duke proposed that our work was more accurately described as "touching men's hearts." I would add "so that they know their own hearts."

What I learned from my own alma mater and involvement with men's colleges like Hampden Sydney, Morehouse, Saint John's, and Wabash is that the "the unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates), "to thine own self be true," and that life may be but a "poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" (Shakespeare). These are the words that echo in my head from my college days as an English major. It was a journey of .finding myself and a meaningful place in the world. Men's colleges and schools with men's programs doubly enrich that process for college men by posing two questions "Whoam I?" and also "Who am I as a man?"

Michael Kimmel reminds us, in Manhood in America, that how to be a man changes from age to age: whether the goal is to look and act like Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, or a more modern iPad-toting professional. I see so many young men confused about how to be a man these days, asking what are the new expectations in relationships, marriages, the workplace, and fatherhood. My advice is to take time to talk with trusted friends and skilled mentors to help decode the messages bombarding them or playing in their own minds about the need to be the "bread-winner," the "sturdy oak," the "big wheel"-or to "man up"-to traditional masculine expectations.

My own research (and weekly conversations in men's groups) consistently confirms that young men are not convinced that they need to perform the old roles of masculinity that their fathers played. But they are convinced their friends need to perform those roles. College men, wanting to fit in, may pretend to want those roles too, often leading to confusion and friction in relationships. I challenge each of them to find the courage to be different, to identify and hold on to his own values and personal mission and to invent the role that fits him as a son or brother or husband or partner or father that his age demands of him.

So my third answer to the question "why engage college men?" is: so that they become men. To ask them the deeper questions in the journey through general education and major requirements: "who are you?" and "who are you as men?" That journey will engage them for a lifetime in the discovery of where their own hearts lie and walking their hour upon the stage with integrity, confident in who they are and in their new roles defining again what masculinity is for them and for their generation.


Gar Kellom (B.A. Lawrence University; Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) is director of Student Support Services at Winona State University (MN). At Saint John's University (MN), he founded the Center for Men's Leadership and Service, the first men's center on a liberal arts college campus. He is the editor of Developing Effective Programs and Services for College Men.

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