Helping Students of Color Reach for Success and Dream Big

Meet three Black males from Montbello who became business professors at the most diverse community college in the state.
  • 3 black males side by side smiling

Growing up in northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, Community College of Denver (CCD) Professor and Business Administration Program Chair Lynn Wilson excelled in school and enjoyed strong family and church support. But he had no idea how to make his college dream a reality.

Wilson remembers his former neighborhood as a diverse, enriching environment, despite the area’s penchant for gang violence. He cherishes memories of growing up with the same close friends from first grade to middle school. But in high school, he found the peer pressure and constant verbal abuse from his colleagues jarring.

“It taught me to have tough skin. During my time at Montbello High School, there was a culture of low expectations. We were not encouraged to prepare for college unless you were an athlete or an honors student.” he recalls.

Despite the obstacles, Wilson followed the advice of a former Montbello High student who was now in college and came back to visit one of his former teachers. Wilson happened to be in that class, and the young man handed out an easy-to-follow list of high school courses required to attend any 4-year university in the state. That experience left an impression on Wilson on the importance of giving back to your community even as you rise. He graduated from Montbello High School in 1992, having earned a full-ride engineering scholarship. He recalls many times struggling in higher-level math, dealing with housing and food insecurity, and going into depression after he lost his scholarship. However, he had faith that God would see him through. After five arduous years, he went on to graduate from the University of Oklahoma.

Immediately after graduation, Wilson worked in the South for telecommunications startups, became an entrepreneur, and earned a Master’s in international business administration from Nova Southeastern University before returning to Denver after losing everything during the Great Recession of 2008.

Finding His True Calling

After serving as Assoc. Dean of business and accounting at a for-profit college, Wilson landed a professorship at CCD in 2012, charged with revitalizing the entrepreneurial program.

“I wasn’t looking to teach at a community college but I’m so grateful we found each other,” Wilson says. “I was looking for a place to help a lot of first-generation folks, a lot of underrepresented populations that was also cost-effective for them.”

Students of color don’t often see themselves, their culture, or their experiences represented in their instructors, which can affect their outcomes for success. But dedicated, experienced professors like Wilson are helping turn that around not only in his program but throughout the school.

At CCD, Wilson set about designing innovative programs like Bootup Camps to provide technical and business skills through accelerated workforce training. In the last 2 years, the program has assisted in awarding almost 200 Internet Core Competency Certification (IC3) digital literacy certifications to over 100 people through CCD and Community College of Aurora.

Always looking towards the future, Wilson, his advisory board and now-retired faculty member, Emma Cummings, developed a curriculum for a new Supply Chain Management certificate which anticipated the marketplace switching from retail to logistics before Covid happened.

Prof. Wilson is currently Program Chair of Business Administration and Economics, offering students hands-on opportunities like a pre-COVID field trip to Colorado State University as part of CSU’s transfer day, and hosting virtual events for the community to showcase business students with his annual Pitch Night.

Recruiting Other Black Leaders

Impassioned to help the marginalized and students of color excel, Wilson enlisted other Black business leaders who also grew up in Montbello to share their expertise at CCD.

When entrepreneur Dr. Jamal Bowen, who also grew up in Montbello, approached Wilson for assistance with his venture, Empowering Community Entrepreneurs (ECE) https://www.ececolo.com/, to help young adults develop entrepreneurial skills and find resources, Wilson recruited him as an adjunct professor.

Dr. Bowen earned a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies from Colorado State University in 2013 and a master’s in Organizational Management and Public Administration from Ashford University Forbes School of Business & Technology in 2016. Jamal Bowen received his Honorary Doctorate in Public Service from the Denver Institute of Urban Studies & Adult College in 2021.

He currently serves as First-Year Experience (FYE) Coordinator and Program Chair for student-success-focused Advanced Academic Achievement (AAA) at CCD, helping students with college skills like note-taking, time management and exam prep.

“CCD students are very diverse and many need help with those foundational skills,” says Bowen, a member of the African Leadership Group Business and Economic Opportunity Committee.

Bowen was instrumental in coordinating field trips to the University of Denver for CCD students. As an adjunct business instructor, his classes could attend workshops, and some students were even chosen to serve on panels presenting to high school students about the differences between two- and four-year college paths. Those experiences helped boost student confidence and help them envision themselves going on to succeed at a four-year university like DU.

FYE classes are co-taught along with preliminary discipline courses that reach out to high school students in neighborhoods like Montbello and offer High School Connections (Concurrent enrollment for high school students) to take CCD business classes.

“Growing up, we weren’t taught things like financial literacy or encouraged toward entrepreneurship,” Bowen says. “Together at CCD, we’re changing that narrative. We’re showing students of color that they can start by working for this company now, build up experience and go on to create something on their own.”

Reimagining Montbello

Wilson recruited Eric Hamilton, who likewise grew up in Montbello, from his church, Denver Christian Bible Church.

“One of the things you realize when you visit other schools is that other students had certain access to computers, software and other resources that you did not,” Hamilton says. “In college, it was difficult because I had to jump to that level of rigor.”

Hamilton earned a BS from Tuskegee University in 2001 and a master’s in business administration in 2006. He serves as system safety and security manager with Transit Safety and Security Solutions, Inc. where he works on transit projects in cities like Denver, Chicago and Boston.

Hamilton has been giving back to Montbello High School through participation in the Reimagining Montbello project. He joined CCD in 2019 as an adjunct professor teaching BUS 115 Introduction to Business wherein students learn to write a business plan and envision starting their own business.

“I have an opportunity as a first-line facilitator to inspire students who are just starting out on their business track,” Hamilton says. “To encourage the idea of entrepreneurship and help them tap into their creativity.”

Improving Access to STEM Education and Entrepreneurship

“The collaboration with Lynn and Jamal is great,” Hamilton says. “I’ve reviewed resumes, business plans and presentations for some of Lynn’s entrepreneur students and we’ve combined content for our intro students. Students get to compete for prizes by making Shark Tank-type video pitches. I’m able to share all I’ve gained in the 20 years I’ve been in the workforce.”

Like his colleagues, Hamilton enjoys serving as an empowering role model for students of color.

“We have a population of students trying to get an education and coming from areas where they didn’t get the resources they needed,” he says. “The ability to come in and see somebody who went to the exact same school makes them feel like they have a shot, comfortable to ask questions, explore ideas and dive into things they might not otherwise consider.”

The three professors collaborated in DU’s Black Male Initiative Summit, participating in panel discussions on increasing resources and opportunities for underserved students who came from neighborhoods like theirs.

Bowen likewise cherishes his role in helping students of color from similar backgrounds learn to dream big at CCD.

“Together we’re expanding programming, running STEM and entrepreneurship camps,” Bowen adds. “We’re helping students of color see they can get paid to be professionals in any industry.”

They’re also introducing Black students who may have never envisioned themselves teaching at the college level to the rewards of that possibility.

The Rewards of Watching Underserved Students Take Off

“As a first-generation student, all the prep work I tried to do along with getting a full-ride scholarship still didn’t fully prepare me to succeed easily at a 4-year school,” Wilson says.

He believes CCD gives students of color from places like Montbello an easier on-ramp to the skills, access to resources, personal support, and confidence necessary to excel and transfer to a 4-year university.

“Our professors are real mentors versus the traditional university professor who may not have occupational experience,” Wilson says. “We cap our classes at 25. At our level, you get to personally listen to their challenges, and make a connection with students, and pour all you’ve learned from the school of hard knocks into them.”

“Whatever story of adversity my students come in with, you try to become a catalyst in helping them break through to what they are trying to accomplish,” Wilson continues. “I enjoy crafting a culture of collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation that focuses on supporting our students. It’s very fulfilling when you see them catch a spark and watch them take off.”