David Waters: Defiant pair fight low expectations with higher education

 The crowd mingles while at the "Bringing out the Leaders" event at the University of Memphis on Thursday night. The event is part of Alton Cryer (far left) and Jeremy Calhoun's (not pictured) efforts to help college students network with local government and business officials. (Andrea Morales/Special to the Commercial Appeal)

 The crowd mingles while at the "Bringing out the Leaders" event at the University of Memphis on Thursday night. The event is part of Alton Cryer (far left) and Jeremy Calhoun's (not pictured) efforts to help college students network with local government and business officials. (Andrea Morales/Special to the Commercial Appeal)

All this city needs is more defiant young men like Jeremy Calhoun and Alton Cryer.

Young men who defy the gravitational forces of their peers and neighborhood perils. Young men who defy society’s downward glances and expectations. Young men who defy the staggering odds stacked against them, their generation, their community.

“We want to change the city, change perceptions people have of young African-American men, defy stereotypes,” said Calhoun, the 25-year-old president and co-founder of STS Enterprise.

STS is a nonprofit organization they formed in 2012 while they were business management students at the University of Memphis.

STS is also an acronym for what has become their mission ever since: Setting the Standard.

“I can’t control the negative thoughts or perceptions of others,” said Cryer, STS’s 25-year-old vice president and co-founder. “I can defy the stereotype and set the standards for myself and others. I can be an exception.”

Calhoun and Cryer, who have known each other since their days at Ridgeway Middle School, were the exceptions as soon as they set foot on the University of Memphis campus.

One in 10 undergraduate students is an African-American man. One in 10 of those men will graduate in four years, and only 3 in 10 after six years.

The statistics are even more distressing nationally. African-American men account for about 4 percent of the total enrollment at four-year colleges. The percentage hasn’t changed in 40 years.

“That’s not just an African-American male problem, it’s a collective problem,” said Daphene R. McFerren, director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the U of M.

“Given the high percentage of African-American men in Memphis, if you don’t have these men prepared for 21st-century workforce, it’s not only bad for them. It’s bad for African-American families and white families and the entire community. We’re all connected.”

The institute is launching a new program this month to help the U of M’s African-American male students defy and improve the odds through mentoring, counseling and other forms of support.

The Hooks African American Male Initiative, funded by a FedEx grant, will be announced at the institute’s second annual gala Thursday. It will start with 21 of the 1,766 black male undergraduates enrolled this spring.

The initiative addresses one of the goals of President Obama’s 2014 “My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge”: Ensuring all youth complete post-secondary education or training.

Calhoun and Cryer both graduated from high school in 2008, the year Obama was elected president. Like Obama, they’ve been defying odds and expectations all of their lives.

Calhoun’s father spent time in prison. He got kicked off his high school football team. “I was defiant then, but not in a constructive way,” he said.

Cryer comes from a broken home and was heading down a self-destructive path. “I was getting in a lot of fights, just trying to act tough. I didn’t want to look weak.”

Both discovered other ways of being tough and defiant by becoming first-generation college graduates.

Calhoun graduated magna cum laude in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems. He’s working as an IT Specialist for International Paper.

Cryer graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Sports & Leisure Management. He’s working as a Youth Specialists for the City’s Office of Youth Services.

STS was the result of a startup project they did for the U of M’s Crews Center for Entrepreneurship.

“They had a good business model, but what was so impressive was their motivation,” said Kelly Penwell, the center’s former assistant director.

“They want to help others and give back and they just believe it’s the right thing to do. If we could harness that ...”

Calhoun and Cryer are trying. STS has 9 volunteer mentors working with 13 young men in grades 8-12. The program includes job shadowing, service projects (including regular visits to nursing homes), and networking with local political and business leaders.

“So many boys need help,” said Cryer. “We’re trying to get them to eliminate excuses and help them see they have choices,” Cryer said.

Recently, they were mentoring a troubled middle-school student.

“We took him out to eat and he asked us, ‘Who’s paying y’all to do this?’” Calhoun said. “I said, ‘No one’s paying us. We don’t need money to do this. You’re important.’”

In Memphis, nothing is more important.

Contact David Waters at waters@commercialappeal.com.