Cornett-Scott wagered that an unparalleled combination of hands-on mentorship, institutional and peer support, and special programming could transform MBU into an exemplar for helping students of color succeed. And Kwanzaa would be her keystone.
“The way [Kwanzaa at MBU] is set up, as an incoming student, it gets you connected and working with peers, alumni mentors, and OIE staff [typically within the first week of school],” said current Kwanzaa director Jaliyah Bryant ’23. That helps ease anxiety around transitioning to college, “because not only are you making new friendships from day one, you have alumni [like Tiffany Forman], and staff members like Rev. [Cornett-Scott] assuring you they’re there to help you every step of the way. And you can tell they aren’t just saying these things — it’s something they passionately believe in; their sincerity is obvious.”
Having no alumni base to draw on, Cornett-Scott initially tapped Black professors and local leaders in the African American community to serve as mentors for Kwanzaa at MBU ceremonies. They brought an element of lived experience to the program, and helped students internalize the fact that they would, in time, become the mentors of tomorrow.
“Here were these highly successful Black men and women volunteering their time to help you, and invest in your success,” said Foreman. “It made me think, ‘They have to see something in me, maybe I really do have something special.’”
Those seeds of confidence were nurtured as students tackled tasks that took them outside their comfort zone. Peers might encourage a shy but talented classmate to perform a vocal solo. A young man who was routinely scolded for being inattentive to detail might learn to sew intricate patterns for gowns made from ceremonial African fabrics. Others helped handle budgets and source materials from overseas. Still others learned complex dance sequences.
“When my parents came to watch my first Kwanzaa, they couldn’t believe it,” said Foreman. “They were like, ‘Who is this person, and what have they done with my daughter!’”
Student experiences almost universally mirrored Foreman’s.
“When the crowd started clapping and cheering, I looked around at my classmates and understood that we’d grown so much — we’d helped one another transform into totally different people from when we started,” said Bryant, recalling her first Kwanzaa at MBU. In that moment she suddenly saw herself in a different light: “I’d become the person that Rev. [Cornett-Scott and OIE alumni] had seen inside of me and been trying to draw out.”