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Bernard Reyes: Creating More Opportunities for Graduates of Color

By Joanie Harmon
UCLA alumnus and Class of '23 doctoral candidate Bernard Reyes (’20, M.A., Education).

UCLA alumnus and soon-to-be Ph.D. establishes nonprofit to help organizations improve career and economic outcomes for new college grads.

Making research apply to real-life situations is an academic challenge that UCLA alumnus Bernard Reyes (’20, M.A., Education) has met. As the founder of HigherRoots Socioeconomic Solutions, the doctoral candidate draws upon his experiences as a student affairs professional and a research analyst to provide evidence-based consultation services for higher education, industry, and local government, in order to improve career opportunities for graduates of color. 

As if launching a nonprofit was not enough, Reyes is also reaching back to communities of color, where students’ college aspirations are often hampered by a cultural misunderstanding of higher education. Celebrating 2023 as the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, he has created a podcast to encourage students of color to “#ownthenarrative” of their goals and successes.

A native of Northern California, Reyes has served as a research analyst for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, studying racial climate on college campuses, and for the National Institutes of Health, examining diversity and culturally-aware mentoring in the biomedical fields. Soon to be a double Bruin, he will defend his dissertation within the division of Higher Education and Organizational Change (HEOC) this spring. Reyes holds a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on curriculum and instruction and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from CSU Sacramento, as well as five associate of arts degrees from American River College. 

What inspired you to create HigherRoots Socioeconomic Solutions?

I have about five years of experience working in student affairs at Sacramento State.  As much as I loved working with my students, I wanted to do more for the community and for our students of color beyond the confines of the physical space of an office. I was thinking, how can I do things on my own terms? And I figured, why don’t I just take a risk and start a nonprofit and continue my research?

HigherRoots is basically a manifestation of my dissertation on social mobility and the racial wealth gap of college graduates, making it into a real, applicable thing for our students. What I find problematic is that we tend to push Black and Brown students to graduate in a timely manner. But, the racial wealth gap and disparities in annualized salaries still hold, even when you account for a college degree. So, I wanted to do something about that.  

What is unique about your study of the racial wealth gap?

My study is unique in that I am associating racial disparities in salary and social mobility with Minority-Serving Institutions. Additionally, I am also looking at relative social mobility among the different social classes.  What I’m finding is that a lot is based on what kind of job you get after college. But that is something I’m still analyzing, understanding which institutions are likely to funnel certain groups into which categories of occupations and also which groups are likely to get into paid-versus-unpaid internships. What I’m finding is that paid internships can help students earn higher starting salaries right after college, as you would expect. But then, when you look at unpaid internships, [they] can potentially be detrimental to students. And students might be better off having no internship at all than having an unpaid internship.  

What are some of the fields that you have found afford more opportunity for students, based on getting a paid internship?

In terms of paid internships, a lot of them are in STEM because it's part of the curriculum, and those are the programs that tend to pay more because they have the budget to do so. 

When you look at other areas, other industries, like education and the social sciences, for example, they have a higher likelihood of offering unpaid internships. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing. It just means that's just the nature of the work is because a lot of it is for the community, and so, the expectation is not to get paid. Also, their budgets might not permit them to offer these opportunities like they do in STEM. So my work is also advocating for increasing funding in social science work and research so that we can offer more of these paid opportunities to students. 

Your NIH work was on diversity and culturally-aware mentoring in biomedical sciences. Is that still a field with a lot of disparity for students of color?

Yes, it’s reflective of what we see in society in general. There are disparities when it comes to students of color, particularly Black and Brown students, with their opportunities for publication, for instance. There's a lot of gatekeeping [and] subconscious biases where professors might not see it being worthwhile to provide those students with those opportunities. The NIH trainings were designed for administration, faculty, and staff within biomedical departments to mitigate racial biases within the work environment, such as labs and in classrooms. It’s not a silver bullet, but it is something to at least start the conversation when it comes to race and racism in higher education, specifically within the STEM and biomedical fields. 

What inspired the podcast?

For some people who are coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, there might be a stigma from their family and friends for them [not] to go to college, because it's not as appealing as getting job and is therefore a waste of money. 

When you think of “G,” you think of “Gangsta” So I flipped that to make the “G” stand for “Graduate.” Hence, we called our podcast G’d Up and Degree’d Up University. I wanted to combine the two forces and show the world that it's not mutually exclusive to come from whatever background you came from and also be highly educated. With this in mind, we highlight the success stories of non-traditional college students and give them an opportunity to own their narrative, for which I use the hashtag, #ownthenarrative. I wanted to do that with the subtheme of hip-hop because this year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and I wanted to celebrate our college-educated community along with the hip-hop community.

We only started in February, and while our followers are still growing, our engagement is relatively high. To help us continue growing, we also just started a new series within our podcast called “G'z on Beatz.” The goal is to feature college graduates or current college students who also perform or make hip-hop music where we have them perform in the studio to one of their own tracks. You can learn more through our Instagram and other links found there. 

Are you a hip-hop artist yourself?

That part that is up to debate. But I do have some projects that I have up my sleeve that I hope will gain more engagement, so, we're going to see how that plays out.

Right now, we're still working on grants [for HigherRoots]. Ideally, my goal is to be running HigherRoots full-time, to have some entrepreneurial endeavors related to that, and have other streams of income where I can integrate higher education internships with the music, entertainment, and hip-hop industries. I’m also hoping that my dissertation defense - and any future publications - would attract some federal grants to support students so we can expand access for paid internships, particularly at Minority-Serving institutions.

What got you interested in studying higher education? 

A lot of my research is based on my personal experiences. I came in just like the typical student [who] didn't know what my major was, so I kind of just alternated between psychology and courses from other fields. As a first-generation student, I didn't really have any tangible guidance from my parents because they just didn't have that knowledge. But eventually, I decided to stick with it. 

There was a point where I wasn't sure what to do and I wasn't able to find employment for over two years. But eventually, I found a part-time job opportunity with the Educational Opportunity Program at Sac State. That’s where I really began to relate to my students and see that there were needs in terms of support, sense of belonging, and of course, their socioeconomic outcomes. I worked my way up from a student assistant to a program coordinator and college counselor. In those roles, I was really able to look at things from a macro-perspective but also at a micro-level, working individually with my student populations.

What ultimately attracted you to UCLA?

I wanted to do something beyond the confines of an office, and that's when I decided to get my Ph.D. UCLA is top-ranked in a lot of areas, so it was a no-brainer to apply here. It was truly a blessing to be accepted to UCLA. I love the city of Los Angeles, and then to have a top-notch educational experience with that, I couldn't ask for more. 

Shout-out to all the HEOC faculty and students and all of SEIS. They have all been instrumental and really helpful with my development as a scholar and as a human being. And last but not least, a big shout out to my mother for being my first teacher, for teaching me how to read at a young age and later, for gently nudging me to go back in college when I was on the verge of quitting. 

Hear Bernard Reyes' podcast, "G'd Up and Degree'd Up University," with episodes featuring UCLA students and alumni. Recent episodes highlight doctoral students Sonya Brooks (Urban Schooling), Amanda Finzi-Smith (Educational Leadership Program), and doctoral candidate Ashton Pemberton, who will graduate with his Ph.D. this spring from HEOC. Also featured in a recent episode is Bruin quarterback Chase Griffin, who graduates this spring with his M.Ed. from the Transformative Coaching and Leadership program at SEIS.

Photo by Fowler Photography