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Alum Empowers Black Students, Men of Color to Succeed in Higher Education

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Raised by a single parent, alumnus and educational leader Antonio Banks’ mother always professed the power and opportunity of education. 

“She would often tell us, ‘There is no quicker way to change your situation than through education.’ It’s a proverb that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Banks said.

Banks credits his Cal State Fullerton education and research experiences at the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership for transforming his life and changing his career trajectory. 

Today, the first-generation college graduate is driven to uplift and empower other Black students and males of color in higher education. Banks, who grew up in Watts, is the inaugural director of Black and Males of Color Success at Compton College. 

Banks earned a master’s degree in education-higher education in 2012 and, six years later, enrolled in the university’s doctoral program in education. In 2019, he earned a doctor of education (Ed.D.) in educational leadership-community college concentration.

Higher education leaders Dawn Person and Antonio Banks
Antonio Banks, when he was a graduate student, poses with his research adviser Dawn Person, professor emeritus of educational leadership and director of the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership.

During his graduate studies, Banks became a research assistant at the center, known as C-REAL, founded and directed by Dawn Person, professor emeritus of educational leadership. He gained valuable, hands-on experience as an educational researcher with a just, equitable and inclusive lens.

“As C-REAL students, we share our lived experiences and perspectives on what true educational equity looks like and how we can serve as co-conspirators to solve issues in education more effectively,” Banks said. “I honestly do not know if I would be where I am if it wasn’t for the time I spent at the center.”

As a C-REAL researcher, Banks’ projects included assessing and evaluating the university’s GEAR UP partnership with Anaheim Unified School District. His research focused on topics such as veteran student success, Latino parents’ support of their child’s college aspirations and markers of success for men of color in community colleges.

“Through Dr. Person’s visionary leadership and deep understanding of higher education, we learned about the importance of capturing quality quantitative and qualitative data to paint a  vivid picture of issues in higher education and move toward solutions,” Banks said.

Banks continued his research at C-REAL as a doctoral candidate, focusing his dissertation on “Traversing the Higher Education Pipeline for African American Transfer Students in California.” His study examined African American male students from the Inland Empire who transferred from community college to a public university. 

“After I enrolled in graduate school, I wanted to figure out the problem that plagued me since my first year of undergraduate studies: ‘Why were all the Black students leaving after their first year of college?’” he said.

Major findings of his study included that a dedicated professional within the university setting is pivotal in the trajectory of a student’s success and that learning communities centering on cultural identity development are catalysts for student engagement and increased academic success.

C-REAL Celebrates 15 Years of Educational Transformation

C-REAL was founded in 2008 and is housed in the College of Education. The center recognized current and former research students, faculty, staff and community members at its recent 15th anniversary celebration. 

“The center supports research that is solution-focused with an approach that is caring and intended to interrupt systemic exclusionary practices,” Person said. “We work to develop a more socially just researcher at all levels — faculty, students and community leaders who rely on decision-making that is data-driven and considers both affective and effective outcomes.” 

Banks was among seven individuals honored as a “C-REAL legend” for his work to support educational change and transformation. Over the years, the center has honored 35 people for their unwavering commitment to serving, supporting and sustaining underserved communities, Person said.

“Antonio’s research experience at the center strengthened his resolve and commitment to serving underserved populations and making a difference in the lives of students and their families,” said Person, Banks’ research adviser and doctoral dissertation chair. 

A Leader in Elevating Black Student Success

Higher education leader Antonio Banks
Educational leader Antonio Banks attended C-REAL’s 15th anniversary celebration in November and was honored as one of the center’s “legends.”

After completing his doctorate, Banks stepped into the role of C-REAL program analyst for a year. During his career, he has held leadership roles at two- and four-year institutions and nonprofit organizations. 

These included serving as the state charter director for the African American Male Education and Network Development Organization (A2MEND) and project director of Fullerton College’s Umoja Community, which is designed to enhance the cultural and educational experiences of Black and African American students.

Since 2021, Banks has worked at Compton College. As a role model and mentor, he strives to elevate Black students and males of color to achieve academic success and improve retention and graduation rates.

“I wanted this position for several reasons; it felt like a divine alignment of many different aspects of my personal and professional development and trajectory up until this point,” he said.

“Programs like this are critical to college campuses because there is still a significant level of equitable practices, policies and personnel that need to be embedded in higher education systems to provide students with the educational experiences and outcomes they deserve.”

Banks added that with Compton College near where he grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the position gave him the opportunity to return home and give back to his community.

“It utilizes all my educational experiences and professional passions up until this point in my life — and allowed me to bring the needs of Black and male students of color to the forefront of both student services and academic affairs in a meaningful and intentional way.”

Debra Cano Ramos