As Union-Endicott High School students gathered around Visions Federal Credit Union President and CEO Ty Muse, one student had a particular question.
As an African-American man, has life has been harder for him?
But Muse said he uses his differences to his advantage.
"I walk into a room and everyone is like, 'Who is that good-looking six-foot-four black man in a suit?'" Muse said. "So, that's what you try to do. You always try to bring your personality in. No one can be better at being you than you."
Muse was one of 17 guests at a Job/Career Fair held Oct. 5 for members of The Squad, a club at Union-Endicott High School specifically for students of color.
Currently in its fourth year, the idea for The Squad came after administrators at the Union-Endicott Central School District found that male students who were black, hispanic and biracial had higher suspension and lower graduation rates than their peers. Since discovering this, the district has made several efforts to close this gap.
"So we don't have things like a self-limitation, narrowing what professions we see ourselves able to have," said Kyle Wolf, a social studies teacher at the high school and adviser of The Squad.
The group meets once a month and is privately funded by donors and sponsors, including Visions Federal Credit Union and the Broome County Youth Bureau.
A little more than 60 students participate in The Squad at Union-Endicott High School, while the middle school's Squad has just over 30 members.
"We're focusing specific because the need is specific," Wolf said.
Wolf does his best not to lead meetings, but bring in male guest speakers of color from a variety of professions in the area, as well as students from Binghamton University's Men of Color Scholastic Society.
Muse has been guest speaker for the group in the past, and has brought some of his friends and colleagues in to speak to the students as well.
"It gets really honest; it gets really real," Muse said. "Talking about 'How did you get from here to here?'"
Monthly meetings usually center around discussion of current events, as well as "shout-outs" to student achievements.
"We really focus on positivity," Wolf said.
If a student is not succeeding, Wolf will have conversations with the student in private.
"We do try to be holistic, but in terms of when we're together, it's the positive," he said.
High school senior Lityk Sellers, 17, of Endicott, joined The Squad during his freshman year.
"I want to be a professional athlete, but there's a small chance of that happening, so I want to learn what other people are doing so I can see people like me being successful," Sellers said.
In terms of career, Sellers is exploring a variety of options, from sports medicine to accounting. But it's Muse's life story that has connected with Sellers, as they both play basketball.
"He went to college and studied something and became very successful," Sellers said. "I was like, 'That means I can actually do something.'"
Wolf began organizing events like the career fair after hearing a similar wish from members of The Squad.
"I want to see people who look like me doing a variety of things," they tell him.
This year marks the second year of the Job/Career Fair. During the fair, students were given two hours to visit all 17 professionals, who were all men of color. At each presenter's table, students picked their brains about their profession, the level of education and training required, salary and life in general.
"The focus is on exposure and representation for jobs," Wolf said.
Students are now setting their sets higher, he observed, reaching for careers like the ones their guest speakers hold.
"It's changed my way of thinking a lot," Sellers said. "It's basically made me to a better person. I help younger people more, and give them that assurance that there's someone out there that really cares about them."
Group members' suspension rates have decreased, Wolf said, and he is seeing an increase of students from underrepresented minority groups in his honors classes.
"They've just seen 10 other guys who made it, from very similar backgrounds or tougher," Muse said. "They know they can make it."