The sharp smell of aftershave hits you in the face as you enter the room. The lights are dimmed, giving off a mellow vibe. You hear the buzz of the clippers, the music playing in the room and the murmur of men talking to each other.
No, this isn’t your local barbershop that’s been around since your grandfather was your age. This is EOF Barbershop, a new initiative from what was once the Male Leadership Academy (MLA) at Montclair State University.
Also known as Barbershop.Edu, the program’s goal is to promote male leadership while engaging students in the process. As students get their hair cut by professional barbers free of charge, they discuss whatever the topic is that day, whether it be mental health or relationships.
The Male Leadership Academy was an organization for male students mainly in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program to provide men with leadership skills. However, EOF counselor and MLA adviser Jeronimo Valcarcel wanted to elevate the club in order to attract more members and have them get more out of their discussions. And what better way to do that than by offering them a free haircut?
“Sometimes just coming up with $40 for a haircut is pretty expensive,” Valcarcel said. “Now that could be a burden. So you know what? Let us take that burden from you. Come get a free haircut and have some great conversations.”
And so EOF Barbershop was created. As the advisor, Valcarcel spearheads the students’ discussion but mostly lets the students express their thoughts.
But why create a barbershop on campus, of all things? Valcarcel explained how barbershops have been a place of discussion for men for generations.
“This old school theme of barbershop, it was an open space,” Valcarcel said. “People just talk, some crazy things were said. And then you have the older gentlemen with some wisdom there to kind of correct the younger generation sometimes.”
Valcarcel noted that barbershop vibe has disappeared in recent years, and wanted to bring it back as a way to expose male students to those leadership skills.
“I realized that the culture of the barbershop is something that I wanted to recreate,” Valcarcel said. “Initially, I wanted something where the guys could gather around, just sit down, chop it up, have a conversation about life and at the same time you’re getting a haircut.”
The men who have attended the program’s sessions have spoken about topics such as the importance of having a male role model and one’s own definition of greatness. Vaughn Smith Jr., a senior sports communication major, is one of the students who sat in on one of those discussions.
“I got to learn a lot about a lot of different people, a lot of different backgrounds, coming from a place where I didn’t have my father in my life,” Smith said. “But [I] still was able to learn different qualities, what it [means] to be a man.”
Malachi Abernathy, a sophomore undecided, spoke about how he felt the discussions helped him as a man.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of guidance when it comes to leadership,” Abernathy said. “I think [the barbershop is] a very valuable experience [because] we aren’t gonna get that once we graduate. After that, I think you’re expected to just know everything.”
The initiative also creates a sense of community among the men who attend, as they get to know each other better through expressing their views. Valcarcel explained how the students grow closer through their discussions.
“Everyone has their own unique, different perspectives and opinions and ways that they think about life, so it’s just an open space for them to really come and feel like they have a voice and they can just share their perspective,” Valcarcel said.
Brandon Bernard Mendez, a junior information technology major, said that the sense of community is what brought him to the program.
“This group really allows you to have an opinion and not get judged for it,” Bernard Menedez said. “It’s a very friendly environment. I trust the people around me, and it’s very different from classes or anything I’ve ever been a part of. So I think that uniqueness is really what attracted me to [this program].”
The program meets four times a semester. There are two more meetings this semester, one in CCIS 133 and the other in the Student Center Ballrooms.
Going forward, Valcarcel said his vision for Barbershop.Edu is for it to continue to have an impact on young men across campus. He wants the program to become a space where men know they can have a meaningful discussions.
“I see Barbershop.Edu being a place where men can come together, where it’s a staple of Montclair [State and] of EOF,” Valcarcel said. “Where men come, gather, talk, laugh, be encouraged, be inspired and they really just get challenged by the conversations that we have.”
Abernathy hopes those conversations will encourage other students to take part in the program.
“Maybe those stories can impact other students to be like, ‘Oh, okay, maybe I’ll give it a shot,’” Abernathy said.
Smith also expressed his desire for more students to come to the discussions.
“This is a place where people can be reformed [and] refined,” Smith said. “You get to shape up externally, but also internally.”
You can follow EOF Barbershop on Instagram at @eof_barbershop.