Each week during her student-facing office hours, UMBC President Valerie Sheares Ashby meets with students to chat about their lives and experiences at UMBC. Today, she’s speaking with Okechukwu Tabugbo ’25, computer engineering, president of UMBC’s Black Men’s Society, a group that provides mentorship, skills training, and community to students while trying to eliminate negative narratives and stigma around what it means to be a Black man in America.
Okechukwu Tabugbo: I found out about UMBC’s Black Men’s Society when I was in my first year. I knew Marvin Onwukwe, the club secretary at the time. He was always walking around campus smiling, and I would ask him, “Why are you smiling so much, Marvin?” He would say, “It’s because I have my life together. I have everything going for me. So what reason do I have to frown?” I would say, “Why do you have everything going for you?” He said, “Because I’m on top of my work. I can help you out, too. You should come to Black Men’s Society so that we can all be on top of our work.”
President Sheares Ashby: Oh, that is so good.
Tabugbo: But, in all honesty, I did not go to the first one. Then Amery Thompson…the current advisor, told me that I should come out, and I have to be honest, I did not go at that time either. [Laughs.] Then, finally, our current vice president, Israel Funmilayo…invited me, and he said, “It’s about financial literacy…I just need you to come out.” I looked at my bank account, and I said, “Okay.”
After getting there, I sat down. Amery was giving the introduction on financial literacy and telling us everything that we need to know. It honestly just made me feel at home and appreciated, the fact that someone took the time out of their day to teach me something that I constantly left on the back burner. I took that for what the club is.
I take it especially as a safe space for Black men on campus—to make them feel appreciated, to give them the time they need to grow in a world that rushes them so often. I appreciate the overall aspect of giving Black people on campus a space for professional development that they may not have had before and giving us a space to talk about issues surrounding the community. The Society allows everyone, despite their views, to be understood and to have time to understand others.
Sheares Ashby: That is amazing. And what is so interesting to me is the mentorship of the more senior students to the younger students because I see it all the time. I see the senior students saying, “Hey, come on over here. This is where we are. This is what we’re doing. This is how we can support you.” They’re really living out the mentorship in ways that are so important. And it is so wonderful to see the younger students come in and then become those mentors to other people. I can see that growth even in a year.
Tabugbo: Exactly. And on that note of mentorship, that’s why we wanted to start moving toward outreach programs, especially to local high schools and middle schools. This effort is spearheaded by our secretary, Daniel Bajulaiye. If we can get to these students early and make them know that they’re appreciated, make them know that they can be heard, that will be important in fostering a good relationship, especially as they come into UMBC. Just letting people know that you’re there for them is so important because a lot of people, especially on this campus, don’t know their potential.
Sheares Ashby: I one hundred percent agree. One of the things I’m really excited about for UMBC is the work that we continue to do in Baltimore. We’re right here, and we know that there are a lot of Black men, young men, in Baltimore who would benefit. I don’t think too many Black men in Baltimore walk around feeling appreciated.
If we can get to these students early and make them know that they’re appreciated, make them know that they can be heard, that will be important in fostering a good relationship, especially as they come into UMBC.
Tabugbo: Even when I did get the role [as president of Black Men’s Society], I still had imposter syndrome. I didn’t truly feel I belonged until actually stepping into the shoes and having to take over. Talking to my brother all summer, the amount of encouragement he had to give me to say just, “You can do this. You are here for a reason.” Hearing it from Amery, hearing it from Israel, it took a lot to be able to have the confidence to come and do this again and again every day.
Sheares Ashby: Mentorship has always been important. Sometimes it just takes somebody to look at you and tell you, “I see you, and I think you’re pretty special,” or, “I see this gift or talent that you have,” and it can change somebody’s life just like that. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t need encouragement.