Steven “The Prof” Cleveland
A prominent topic on which Black Excellence Project founders related was their struggles as Black first-generation college students. When asked, “What is it like to be first gen?” Steven said, “it’s interesting: I don’t feel like it’s an isolated experience.” Reflecting on his father, Jerry Cleveland, Steven said that going to college felt “like a continuum of what my dad did. My dad got a GI bill he was never able to use because of racism he faced in Alabama which wouldn’t allow him to register for college. So, at six years old, my dad told me I was going to get a master’s degree. I think the only reason why I don’t hold a doctorate is because that’s what he told me. After I was done, I was like, ‘Shoot! I’ve done what he asked me to do, my MFA.’ For me, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of my ancestors in general, but specifically walking into the footsteps of Jerry Cleveland, who was very clear about expectations” (from Steven Cleveland – Issuu). Following in those footsteps led Steven to apply to UCLA.
After being accepted into UCLA in the summer of 1992, Steven got the opportunity to join an awesome program named INROADS. Its purpose was to give young people of color access to jobs in some of the top industries in the Bay Area. Steven was invited to intern at Kaiser Permanente, which, at the time, was on the national stage, because then-First Lady Hillary Clinton saw it as the model for universal healthcare in America. That experience, in many ways, was life changing. Steven earned a salary that far exceeded that of his parents. He was driven to work every day by Fred, a well-dressed Black man who also worked at Kaiser Permanente and zoomed around Bay Area backroads in his Porsche coupe. This was an influential era in Steven’s life. His father was a trucker, which means that he worked with his hands. He dreamed of Steven having the option to use his mind in a white-collar job, just like the one he had at Kaiser. Permanente. INROADS made that dream a reality and that experience informed the design of BEP.
Another big influence on BEP was Steven’s initial visit to CSU East Bay, then called “Cal State Hayward,” for an on-campus training hosted by INROADS. This was Steven’s first tour of a university campus; he was immediately entranced by its beauty, especially the amazing views all the way to San Francisco. As a Black first-generation college student, Steven had never seen a Black student, much less a Black faculty member, but INROADS showed him both. He has never forgotten the warmth of their welcome or his pride in being an INROADS student! Fast-forward 14 years later to 2006: Steven returned to CSUEB, now a Black professor himself and, another 14 years later, he and Sarah Aubert launched the Black Excellence Project.
At its core, BEP derives from Steven’s INROADS experiences. Just as INROADS did for Steven, BEP seeks to empower other Black first-generation college students. Just being exposed to such possibilities affirmed Steven’s desire to attend college. Just as INROADS provided that opportunity for Steven, BEP intends to inspire current and future Black students to pursue higher education in order to achieve their own goals.