Every King Has A Story
In a Nicholls State University classroom, two dozen young Black men step in line with one another. They know each other, some are even friends. But they will leave that classroom as something more.
IN THIS BROTHERHOOD
Lashawn Lewis, the events coordinator leads his brothers in a group vulnerability exercise. The premise is simple: Lewis lists a life situation, and if you have experienced that situation you step forward. Subjects start light but quickly intensify. Have you almost failed out of school? Have you seen violence at home? Have you had a friend or family member die? Have your parents divorced? Have you thought about suicide? One by one, the members stepped forward.
“It was really deep and powerful to see 20 or so guys – my brothers – who have been going through something similar,” says Julian Frilot. “We often think that this is our story, and our story alone. But knowing that we’re not alone, that someone is seeing and hearing us makes you feel less crazy. We can get through it together.”
Kendall Red recalls one of his brothers breaking down when talking about how his family did not even talk to him.
“For him, we are his real family,” Red says.
“A lot of the guys didn’t have anybody that they looked forward to talking to until CROWN.”
Rodney “Duke” Woods, Jr. saw a change in the group after that night.
“After this exercise, I know these guys are my brothers, and they’ve been my brothers from the beginning,” he says. “So many people will see us walking around and they’ll be thinking, ‘Oh, there goes another Black person’ but until you have a conversation with someone and get to know them on a personal level you don’t know what problems they’re facing. That whole night was powerful. We all had different stories, but we were all facing many of the same problems.”
Therein lies the power of the Colonels Retention of Winners Network, or CROWN. Created by the university in 2018 to solve an academic problem,
it is success is rooted in its social nature.
In this brotherhood, every king wears a crown.
The year before CROWN was created, one of every two Black, male freshmen not playing a sport was leaving Nicholls before their second year. This was a much higher rate than their female and white peers. Davonte Burse (AS ‘19) says he could have told you that without seeing the statistics.
“Other than our professors, there weren’t many avenues or resources that we felt comfortable enough to go to and reap the benefits,” Burse says. “A lot of my classmates were transferring, dropping out and failing classes. I mean, a lot.”
At the heart of the issue is representation. Burse, who described himself as an introvert in high school, says he came to Nicholls with the goal of getting involved. But when he got to campus, he noticed that of the more than 100 student organizations on campus, only a couple were targeted for Black students.
“When I was a campus tour guide, I was the only Black guide. Then I was on the Nicholls Social Media Team, and it was just me and Grant Henry. I was one of just a few Black people on the Orientation Team,” he says. “I was a part of these groups, but at the same time I didn’t feel like I was fully a part of them.”
There are people to talk to on campus, Channing Holmes says, but talking to a white person about Black experiences is difficult. They cannot understand what it is like.
“If you’re going through something, you should be able to talk to somebody and confide in somebody,” Holmes says. “I feel like society has put us in a box and tried to control the narrative of what we can be and what we can’t be. We’re not that. You can do whatever you want to, no matter your skin color, religion, ethnicity.”
Representation is still a work in progress, but by the time Burse graduated he could see a change. And it started with CROWN.
“Once I read about it, I wanted to be a part of it. No, I needed to be a part of it,” he says. “I wish there had been something like this when I was a freshman.”
In this brotherhood, every winner is his own king.
As soon as Woods took his first picture, he knew he wanted to be a photographer. His mother, a photographer herself, had been pushing him to give it a try.
“Once I took my first picture, I was like, ‘Wait, I really like this,’” he says. “I started walking around and taking pictures of things that caught my attention. I was just trying to figure out how the camera worked. When I couldn’t find people to take pictures of, I just took pictures of myself.”
He chose Nicholls over the Massachusetts College of Art & Design because it was cheaper and close to home. But in doing so, he thought he would have to find a different career. He tried criminal justice and had almost given up when his mentor, Gil Jasmine (BA ‘18), told him about the Art Department.
“I didn’t even know we had an art department. I was like, ‘This is a thing I can do?’” Woods says. “This first thing I saw when we walked over was the cameras, and I knew this was for me.”
Jasmine adds, “Rodney still tells me that if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t have changed his major. I hold that as a very dear moment in my life.”
Mentors are there to help their mentees avoid the pitfalls found in the first year of college. That can range from counseling their mentee on a decision, being there when they need someone to talk to and helping them revise a paper for class, among other things. But learning isn’t just wisdom being passed from mentor to mentee.
“As a mentor, I have this person who looks up to me, and they think they’re learning from me, but I’m really learning from them,” Jasmine says. “Rodney, being a photographer, has a different perspective. Now, that he’s in art, he’s determined to reach his goal and nobody is going to deter him from that path. I watch him, and I feel more confident in myself. I know that I’m doing what I want to do and I’m not going to let anybody get in the way of my dreams.”
And it is more than a one-on-one relationship. The group has formed a bond among the active members. There are multiple people who have your back, who are there to listen when the world seems overwhelming and who understand what it is like to be a Black man.
“Look at what’s happening in the world. When we see that on the news, we get mad. Instead of going out and acting crazy, we come together, sit down and talk about it,” Woods says. “It’s how we can take our anger out and help each other.”
The biggest influence in the program is program coordinator Farrenn Clark. When asking about mentors, the group first points to Clark before they talk about each other. He makes himself available for the students and supports them in each of their endeavors. When a student has a question, he is there. When they need a bite to eat, he drives them to Subway.
“He’s an awesome guy. He does everything in his power to make sure that we excel,” Lewis says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the wee hours of the morning, he doesn’t hesitate to answer his phone or text back.”
In this brotherhood, every king has his own dreams.
Clark would not have been eligible to join the CROWN program if it had been around when he enrolled at Nicholls two decades ago. He was a student-athlete who came to the university to run track. It did not take him long to realize he was a long way from home.
“There weren’t too many of us,” he says, referring to Black students, faculty and staff. “It was a stark difference.”
Predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, can create isolation among its Black students, especially if they do not know anyone on campus.
“I know a lot of Black men, they come from predominantly Black high schools and when you come to a PWI, you can feel closed up,” Jasmine said. “You want to be somewhere where you feel represented, and a lot of guys didn’t feel connected to, or represented by Nicholls.”
CROWN is being there for your brother whenever they need you. Lewis went to the police station when his mentee had an issue with campus police and, together, they worked through it.
“CROWN is more than retention. It’s more than good grades. It’s more than graduating. This program is bigger than that,” Lewis says. “This is a safe haven. This is a home. This is a group of people that, if something goes wrong, they are there for you, they have your back. This is a family. Once you join, you’re a CROWN member for life.”
Members note the influence of Nicholls President Dr. Jay Clune has helped to change the campus environment.
“Now with Dr. Clune, everything feels more inclusive, more culturally diverse,” Jasmine says. “Being here for six years, I have seen tremendous change. I feel much closer to Nicholls and I thank Dr. Clune for doing that.”
Asked what it means to put on his black CROWN t-shirt, which adorns the red and white logo and Woods responds with one word.
We all had different stories, but we were all facing many of the same problems.” – Rodney Woods
A king can’t be a king without the strength of his own brothers.
Sitting on a bench looking out over the Quad, Clark reflects on how the program fits among the campus dynamic. A year into the program, Black male retention rates mirrored their peers, and the organization has maintained a 3.0 GPA.
“No one comes to college to not fail,” Clark says. “CROWN is more than a way to solve retention. It’s an invitation to people to a space where they can focus on a goal individually and collectively to impact our community in a variety of ways.”
He is often noted for how much he helps his students express their emotions, and at the moment, he admits he is a little emotional thinking about the impact of the program.
“This is Nicholls State University. This is happening at Nicholls. It’s amazing.”
Julian Frilot has seen the pitfalls of college first hand.
Frilot’s older brother struggled with time management before he settled into college life.
Frilot knew he needed to be humble and take advantage of all the resources available to him.
“Like a lot of other Black kids, I didn’t have someone on campus I could talk to. That’s where CROWN helped the most,” he says.
He initially balked at the idea of CROWN. But as he learned more about the program, he knew he wanted to get involved.
“I’m a Black man on this campus, but also I’m now part of a network and I represent them,” Frilot says. “When I succeed, CROWN succeeds. I feel a responsibility to make a name for myself and for CROWN.”
The Baton Rouge Magnet School graduate chose Nicholls because he could attend the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute debt-free. He also wants to attain a deeper understanding of Cajun and Creole cuisine.
“It’s weird, I’ve never been good with my hands but I love cooking. I can’t stop looking for recipes, looking for new ways to do things,” he says. “Going to such a diverse and internationally represented high school, the easiest way to connect with people was through food and that was easy for me.”
Frilot knows that he could have gained professional experience right out of high school, but he wanted a challenging culinary education.
He wants to open a Creole restaurant and potentially bring it to another country.
“I want to have a Black-owned restaurant, selling Black cuisine to the world,” he says. “I want to use my restaurant as a place for other Black kids interested in the culinary arts to find a home.”
As a Black man, Gil Jasmine (BA ‘18) knows a thing or two about barriers. As a professional, he hopes to help his Black brothers and sisters deal with theirs.
“I feel as though, from my position, I can break down barriers and let them know it is okay to reach out for help,” he says. “You do not have to go through this alone. Let me be that person who can help bridge that gap.”
The Laplace native is working toward his masters in clinical mental health counseling. He chose psychology because he likes talking to and helping people. He also knows the stigma surrounding mental health in the
“We are constantly going through things that other people, even though they might empathize with us, they are not going through that,” he says.
When Jasmine heard about the start of the CROWN program, he knew he had to get involved. As an undergrad, he had been searching for a mentor that could help him navigate college. Now, here was a chance for him to be that person for someone else.
“I was happy to share my experience, especially with graduating,” he says. “I can share my journey and tell these guys that I did it and you can
too. You can be even better.”
Jasmine knows he is going to open his own clinic, likely in his hometown. He is now focusing on whether he wants to specialize in group therapy, marriage and family or child therapy.
“Black men, we are not really vulnerable. It takes time for us to open up,” Jasmine says. “But I try to tell our guys that once you do, you are going to feel a lot better. Society tells you that if you are vulnerable, then you are weak. But it takes strength to pour your heart out to someone.”
Rodney Woods is trying to figure out what is next. He has already reached the goals he set for himself as a freshman.
Before his junior year in college, he had already started his own photography business and been published in Vogue Italia.
“Everybody is starting to know my work and to know me, it is crazy,” he says.
Like so many of his peers, Woods – who goes by “Duke” – is a first-generation student, and he is determined to earn his degree.
“That is something to be proud of and it is something that I want to do,” he says.
Woods first met Farren Clark at an LA Safe meeting in New Orleans. After talking shop about photography, Clark pitched him on the then fledgling CROWN program.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” Woods says.
Now, he is the president of CROWN and regularly speaks about the impact his brothers have had on him. After several members of his family passed away in a short amount of time, CROWN was there for him.
“I had people I could depend on to talk at any time of the day, on any day of the week,” he says.
He takes pride in the impact the organization has had on himself and on campus.
“This is something we stand for. We advocated for this, we worked hard for these shirts, these backpacks, these pins,” he says. “We’re crowning ourselves and that means a lot to us. A lot of people take pride in their cars, their phones, whatever. We take pride in this program. We worked hard for this, and it means a lot to every one of us.”
Basketball is more than a game to Channing Holmes.
From rec leagues to AAU, he has grown up on the court. To him, it is more than a corner three, a cut to the basket or grabbing a rebound. It is more than the teammates turned friends he has made along the way. To Holmes, the court is his sanctuary.
“When I am stressed out or I am going through a rough patch, I go to the court,” he says. “Just the feel of the basketball makes me calm and washes away my troubles and worries.”
Holmes is also a talented writer and joined the mass communications program with his sights set on being a sports journalist.
“I love to write and I played sports my entire life. If I can combine my two passions, I know I can make something out of that,” he says.
When the New Orleans native first learned about CROWN on a visit to campus, he knew he had to join.
“I wanted to go somewhere I felt welcome,” he says. “The CROWN program felt like that was for me.”
Holmes recalls one instance where one of the members was stopped by university police on his way to class. He sent a text with just the crown emoji, and immediately several of his brothers reached out to help.
“This is a brotherhood. We look out for each other,” Holmes says. “We just want to see each other succeed and be great. I can talk to them about anything I am dealing with whether that is school or something else.”
His mentor, Jacolby Westmore, is now his roommate and still checks in with him every day. That stability is a steady reminder that there are people who care about him.
“This brotherhood, this unity, there is nothing like it,” Holmes says.
“Playing basketball, my team was my family. Here at Nicholls, CROWN has helped me have a family here. It helps keep me focused, and grounded in my beliefs and my morals.”
Davonte Burse (AS, ‘19) is an artist. Sure, he graduated from the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls, but to him, there is a reason they call it culinary arts.
“I like taking nothing or a few pieces of something else and creating something out of that,” he says.
A self-described introvert in high school, he became one of the most active and forward-facing students before his graduation. He was known for his membership in multiple organizations, attendance at campus events and his regular takeover of the university Snapchat.
“I knew I had something in me, but I hadn’t figured out what that was,” he says. “The fearlessness came out of nowhere. It took over, and I accomplished a lot of things. I had a lot of success.”
But he had to struggle to get here. Adjusting to life away from home was difficult. When his family went through a hard time, it made being away from home even worse.
“My mind was wrecking itself,” he says.
Living and grinding through that tough time put Burse in the position to help someone else. It helped him build the leadership skills necessary to be a mentor, he says. He tells mentees to just be a better person today than yesterday.
“When I think about the motto, I don’t think of it like a crown. I think of our minds. I think of the heads on our shoulders and representing your mind. Your mind is what makes you, it’s what is important to your world,” Burse says.
Lashawn Lewis had never been to the state capital before. But here he was getting a tour of the Governor’s office in Baton Rouge.
He was there as part of the 2019 ULS Day at the Capital when one of his professors told him to follow her. Inside, he talked to elected officials and state administrators about Nicholls and the CROWN program.
“It was scary, I am not going to lie, but I was proud to be able to represent my school as a freshman. I would not have had that opportunity if it was not for CROWN,” he says. “No doubt, I would not be in the position I am in today if it was not for CROWN. I have made connections with people from different places, and I have had the chance to show people what I am really capable of.”
Lewis had been anxious about even attending college. He says he was lucky the CROWN program found him because he now has a group of brothers who could help keep an eye on him.
“One of my fears of going to college was not knowing what to expect. It really helped knowing I would have someone be there for me,”
The Donaldsonville native hopes to one day become a human resources manager. But he is more than just a future businessman, he is an entertainer. Lewis has been singing since elementary school. He has combined his skills in his role as the co-chair of events for CROWN. He organizes events to be both fun, but also as a way to showcase what makes each member special.
“CROWN is more than retention, good grades and graduating. This program is bigger than that,” Lewis says. “It is a safe haven, a home. It is a group of people that, if something goes wrong, they are there for you, they have your back. This is a family. Once you join, you are a CROWN member for life.”
Failure is not an option for Kendall Red.
The New Orleans native is the first male in his family to attend college, and he will not let them down. He also knows if he wants to achieve his dream of opening his own restaurant in Houston, he has to take care of business now.
“It is hard. It is hard keeping up with a lot of classes, but I can do it,” he says. “I am not going to fail. I am not going to have an average grade or a C. I have an 89 in one class now and it is aggravating me. I want that A. I am not trying to pass, I am trying to excel.”
He could have spent his days on the gridiron, but chose the labs in the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute instead. Cooking is his passion, and he grew up in the kitchen learning from his uncle and his grandmother. His signature dish is the New Orleans staple: red beans and rice.
“I like eating, but the best part is the preparation. It’s cutting up your ingredients and organizing your materials. It’s the whole process of cooking,” he says.
He learned about CROWN during orientation and was drawn to the premise.
“We are just regular dudes hanging with each other and trying to better each other’s future,” Red says. “If I am struggling with a class, I know there is somebody who can help me with that. I am good with math, so I can help other guys who need help.”
He admits that he gets emotional when he hears the group recite their motto together.
“Hearing everyone say it together gets me emotional,” Red says. “I have this feeling of family. Y’all really are my brothers. We are like one. We have the same problems, and we have the same goals. This is not an organization to me. It is a family.”