The college admission season is underway and acceptance videos are circulating the internet, allowing everyone to partake in the joy of a child’s success.

But not all students in Sacramento visualize college life as a possibility. 

As a teenager, Alan Rowe saw this future. He graduated from Grant Union High School in the 1960s and ended up in the workforce. However, he came to realize that college would change his life. 

“I knew that education was the key that’s going to unlock the doors to have a better life than my own family did,” he said. 

Rowe grew up without resources in Del Paso Heights, but chose to break the cycle of information silos. His organization, United College Action Network, was founded 35 years ago on the premise that anyone can go to college. The nonprofit has partnered with over 100 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to make higher education accessible to students of color. 

Rowe spoke to CapRadio and The Sacramento Observer about his story, his work and how Black Sacramentans can find support to go to college.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you describe the United College Action Network, or U-CAN?

A: U-CAN was established in Sacramento to help young people that want to go to four-year colleges, and assist them with that process, focusing on HBCUs,  as the basis for our work. 

We identify what’s the best fit, what’s the best school for the majors that you want, what’s financially going to be best fit and how to make that work for you.

The work begins as early as the ninth grade, giving [students] a four year plan for their future, helping them structure their classes and the workload to make sure they take the right courses and are getting the right grades. And what we do is work with their parents to make sure that they’re following that plan so that they can get out of high school and have that option to go to a four-year college, hopefully an HBCU. 

Q: Why do you focus on historically Black colleges and universities?

A: HBCUs have a time honored tradition of educating the total person. Now, I know everybody can give an education of the mind, but not everybody can do those other things that you get at an HBCU, especially for students of African descent.

We want kids to be able to go somewhere where they’re going to be accepted for who they are and what they bring, as opposed to being a token or a quota. [HBCUs] make sure that you get not just the education, but you get the culture. You get the history.  

Q: Can you tell us about the history of HBCUs?

A: We had to educate our own because they wouldn’t let us into schools. 

Langston University was founded by former soldiers from the military, and they knew that their kids couldn’t go to college when they got back to Oklahoma. 

Bethune-Cookman [University] was set up because Mary McLeod Bethune could not get people to let her train and educate girls in Florida. So, she started the school on a dump in Tallahassee

William Hooper was sold three small hills in Huntsville, Alabama, with his brothers when he was 12 or 13. Legend says, he said, I’m going to come back. And he came back and built a university called Alabama A&M University

Our history is rich with the blood, sweat and tears, the struggles that our community, our parents, our grandparents and our forefathers had. And we’re here because of those struggles. We’re here because of the blessings of our ancestors like Harriet Tubman.

[Giving] freedom is what [U-CAN] is doing with education, and we’re providing a nucleus so that our communities can have hope. 

Q: How does your history in Sacramento inform your work?

A: I was born in the ’50s, taken home to Del Paso Heights, and raised in one of the poorest, if not the poorest community in the Sacramento region at that time. 

[There was] a lot of poverty and lack of resources [like] streetlights, sidewalks and irrigation systems. A lot of times people in the community didn’t have the necessities like food to eat. 

When I was at Grant Union High School, we didn’t have nice chairs or nice restrooms. We would go visit other schools, go to their facilities, and you would see a difference in the infrastructure of those schools.

In the ’60s, [Grant] was majority white. I started the first [Black Student Union], or BSU,  in the Sacramento region at Grant High School. I had the first Martin Luther King walk out in 1969, before it became a popular thing. 

Being in Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento communities gave me a desire to want to make a change, and not just for my school, but my community. And so I became an advocate.

Q: What was the process like fighting for the Black community throughout your life?

A: In my early twenties, I worked on a lot of different things in the community of Del Paso Heights to ensure that we were not left out.

Our community fought to keep our fire stations open. We fought to keep the medical center open. We fought to get the Robertson Community Center built. 

We lost several of those fights, but we didn’t let them go without [a fight]. 

I was 26 [years-old] fighting for education. [I] co-chaired the first recall election in the local education system at Del Paso Elementary School System in 1977. And in ’79, I was elected to the Grant Union High School board of education. 

Q: Why did you start this college program in Sacramento?

A: My wife and I were looking at the challenge that our own family had with getting our son prepared for college and knowing that there was a gap and a need. 

The Black community did not have the resources or the knowledge on what the steps were to get into college and how to make some good choices in terms of the options that our students would have. 

My own son was a senior at Grant High School, and there were not a lot of opportunities for him. But one of his teachers, Ms. Cheryl, had told him there were some HBCUs that were an option. 

I had no real knowledge of what HBCU stood for in 1988. 

Q: What was unique about the experience of having your son attend an HBCU?

A: When I took [my son] to Mississippi, I was going down the main walkway to the big administration building and I see the president. 

He said, “Welcome to Jackson State University. Are you busy?” 

He took 45 minutes of his time talking to me about his goals, his vision for the university, and how important it was to have young people come, like my son, who could help change the trajectory of the future of our people. 

When I left there, I kept saying to myself, ‘Would that really happen with a university president?’ 

So when [I] got ready to get on the plane home, I told my wife, “I guarantee you, if [our son] wants to be successful, he’s in the right place. He’s at the place where he’s going to get a quality education. They’re going to nurture him and they look like him, which makes a difference.”

Q: After so many years, what does your work look like with U-CAN?

A: That [story] was the impetus for the beginning of a movement that has been [around] 35 years. And for our community, it is so important that, especially in this day and time where there is so much confusion, division and animosity that our young people who have a hope and dreams can realize what they want to do with their lives.

I can get anybody in college. General data that we have [suggests] 60 to 70% of our kids who go to HBCUs from follow through and get their degrees.

Q: Where can people access your program?

A: We serve students throughout the state. 

In September, we have a statewide Black college recruitment fair. We go to 15 cities — San Francisco, Fairfield, Vallejo, Antioch, Pittsburgh, Stockton, San Bernandino — and we do about 16 events over two weeks. 

We do three days in Sacramento, and we serve school districts that we’re in. And then we have the other districts come over on those days. 

We are currently in Twin Rivers, San Juan, Sac City and Natomas Unified. We also have a pilot teacher education support program in Folsom-Cordova this year. 

We do a program for empowering girls in San Juan district, and then we do our athletic program and male [centric] program in Twin Rivers.

We’re doing incredible work with those four districts. We service schools, and I know we’re in almost 30 schools in those districts, and we’re servicing students of all ethnicities, but mostly Black and brown.

Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.