City College students learn subjects through the prism of Black culture

Umoja community promotes personal growth for students interested in learning from different perspectives


Umoja Program Coordinator Erin Charlens, foreground, with students Hussein Said, left, and Renisha Gates, center, presents the Umoja program, its accomplishments and mission on April 27, 2023. Photo by Shamere Grimes/City Times Media

Shamere Grimes, Multimedia Reporter

Hussein Said, a psychology student who immigrated from Somalia, came to San Diego City College struggling with the English language.

But through the Umoja program, he made major progress.

“Now,” Said told a crowd in an MS building auditorium, “I’m transferring to Cal State San Marcos.”

Said was one of three students showcasing how the Umoja program helped them through their college journey while also giving them a way to voice their personal growth as African-American students on April 27.

Umoja, a Kiswahili word meaning unity, is a program with over 70 chapters throughout California and 16 years of work helping not only African-American students but also any students who may want to learn from a Black perspective, according to the Umoja website.

Erin Charlens, a counselor and Umoja coordinator who teaches personal growth at City College, led the presentation to showcase not only what the Umoja community does on campus but also statewide.

“We want people to know who we are, what we do and how we do it,” Charlens said.

One of the faculty working with students includes Rob Rubalcaba, known as Dr. Rob. He uses a musical alternative to teach students who may doubt their mathematical abilities and shows them how they can learn through different methods.

“We learn math through hip-hop,” Rubalcaba said. “We want to create an environment for anyone, any level or any background in math to thrive.”

Renisha Gates credited much of her success to professors like Rubalcaba, who she compares Rubalcaba to Samuel L. Jackson’s 2005 film character “Coach Carter.”

“If it’s not about math, why is this man calling me to see if I’m OK?” Gates said. “I realized he really cares about our community, he really cares about us and that made me want to try harder.”

Earlier in the year, Umoja organized the Black Film Fridays at City College, as well as community service opportunities, tutoring and cultural enlightenment options.

Umoja worked with other programs including HUBU and the Puente Project to promote cultural diversity, develop leadership skills and help students who really have a desire to learn and work hard to accomplish their goals.

For students who wish to become involved in the Umoja program at City College, you can either email Erin Charlens directly using her campus email, which is listed on the college website, or you go directly to the Umoja website and fill out an application.