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Longtime CSULB supporter Roberta Jenkins to receive an honorary doctorate degree

Published May 13, 2022

Her grandfather could not read or write, but he believed in the importance of education. So, when his small South Carolina town needed a schoolhouse for Black children, he gave up his one-acre of land for the two-room school.

That selfless act did not go unnoticed by a young Roberta Jenkins. The memory of her grandfather giving others a chance to learn stayed with her throughout her life, and the reason the Long Beach resident has spent a lifetime helping underserved students.

“When you see all that in your history and have lived that and see people having to work in the fields and not being able to go to school, that pushes you,” said Jenkins who grew up on a dairy farm in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, a time when the South was segregated.

Jenkins’ lifelong passion for education will bring her to Cal State Long Beach’s Commencement ceremonies next week at Anaheim Stadium to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the College of the Arts. Since 2000, Jenkins, through the education-focused Matthew and Roberta Jenkins Family Foundation, has provided scholarships and travel opportunities for students in COTA’s choral activities.

President Jane Close Conoley called Jenkins a “much-admired member of the Beach family who has demonstrated intellectual and humane values consistent with the aims of higher education.

“You serve as an example of the university’s aspirations for its diverse student body,” Conoley added.

Jenkins, who earned a Meeting & Event Planning Certificate from CSULB’s College of Professional and International Education, said it is an honor to be recognized for her contributions to the university.

“An honorary degree says somewhere along the way, someone recognizes that I’ve done something that has helped somebody, hopefully,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins has spent much of her adulthood helping others, whether through scholarships and grant-funding or expanding educational access and advancing the causes of social justice and equality. She said giving back was “in her DNA.”

Which is why, at CSULB, she continually donates to a variety of projects and programs, such as the Black Alumni Scholarship Fund and Guardian Scholars, the College of Education and COTA.

"I grew up in the South and attended segregated schools,” she said.

Being a part of that and growing up and seeing just the way life presented itself for students of color gave me and my husband an interest in how we could help the underserved student.

Jenkins is most proud of her work in developing the CSULB-Long Beach Unified School District Math Collaborative, a STEM training program and college pathway for young Black males enrolled at Jordan High School in Long Beach.

The collaborative was created in 2011 to support and encourage Black high school male students to attend and graduate from college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about one-third of Black males who enroll in four-year colleges complete their degrees within six years, the lowest of any demographic group tracked by the center.  

Jenkins, through the collaborative, aims to reverse the trend.

“What we are finding in education is that young Black men are the low men on the totem pole,” she said. “Young ladies suffer too, but Black men are the low men on the totem pole.

“I heard the other day that our young students are not getting into college and when they do, they don’t stay there. That is one of the problems we’ve had, and the administration is starting to look at things to see what is going on.”

CSULB is addressing some of these concerns through programs, such as the Men’s Success Initiative, the Black Resource Center and Black Scholars.

 The CSULB-LBUSD Math Collaborative is celebrating 10 years in Long Beach. Jenkins is quick to point out that the program, directed by retired LBUSD principal Doris Robinson, is not just math. She said students receive help and guidance on “every level and we get the parents involved.

Jenkins said that they have shown that all the students they have worked with have graduated from high school and gone onto either a junior college, four-year college or the military.  

We are trying to break the chain of going from the schoolhouse to jail or whatever.

Jenkins, the oldest of seven children, spent her youth milking cows on her family’s dairy farm. She said her parents, much like her grandfather, believed in education. She went on to graduate from Tuskegee University in Alabama, finished her graduate studies at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital and became a nutritionist.

While at Tuskegee, Jenkins met her husband, Matthew, who was studying to become a veterinarian, and later they created SDD Enterprises, a real estate investment and property management firm with businesses in eight states.

Together, they used their resources to help a variety of causes across the country and locally, creating a long roadmap of philanthropy. Matthew Jenkins passed in 2019, yet Roberta has continued to support several causes, including Teachers for Urban Schools and the Entertainment Industry College Outreach Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“My husband and I both had that same kind of desire because we were exposed to the same world,” she said. “He was from Alabama and grew up in a large family who were givers,” Jenkins said. “I’ve learned that it’s easier to give back and I’ve never had less for giving to others. It always seems to return.”

Jenkins maintains strong ties at The Beach as a member of CSULB’s Carillon Society, a past board member of both the 49er Foundation and the President’s Council for Strategic Initiatives. She also is a recipient of the President’s Distinguished Service Award (2014).

“I do what I do because it means a lot for me to help,” she said. “I don’t have an agenda and I’m not looking for accolades. It’s an honor to get the degree, but it’s not anything I would have expected.”