Monday, November 08, 2010

Be a REACH college application mentor

I'm writing to ask you to give no more than 10 hours of your time over the next few months to help a promising, hard-working inner-city NYC high school student with his/her college application.  You don't need to live in NYC – it can be done entirely by email (though if you're in NYC, you have the option of attending bi-weekly REACH college panels and essay workshops with your mentee)


To apply to come a mentor, just fill out some brief information at:


Here's the background: as you may know, I am one of the founders of Rewarding Achievement (REACH), a program almost entirely funded by Bill Ackman's Pershing Sq. Foundation that aims to dramatically improve academic trajectories for many thousands of low-income and minority high school students in NYC by encouraging them to take and helping them pass rigorous, college-level Advanced Placement exams.  The goal is not only to help these students excel academically, but also to get into a top college – and therein lies the rub.  We learned that many of our most gifted students were not attending the top colleges they should have been because they didn't know (and weren't encouraged) to aim high, and didn't submit compelling applications.  This "undermatching" by low-income students is a severe, chronic, national problem that results in terribly high college dropout rates.  To address this, we organized REACH Forward, through which we provide the most promising students (based on passing one or more AP exams as a junior) with a full-day informational session and a mentor who encourages them to apply to top colleges and helps them with their essays. 


We piloted the REACH Forward Mentor Program last year, and the success was phenomenal – with the help of volunteer mentors like you, dozens of students aimed higher and were successful in getting into Ivy League schools, top liberal arts colleges and top engineering schools.  In addition, a number won Gates Millennium Scholarships and other highly coveted grants! 


Let me tell you about my mentee, Angel Batista.  Below are two of the essays I helped him with (shared with his permission) that helped earn him early admission to MIT, where he's now thriving.


Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

            Where do I start?  I was born and spent my early years in a third-world country, English is not my first language, few people in my extended family graduated from high school, much less college, and I was raised by a single mother.  Even after I moved to the land of opportunity, I grew up in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of it, Harlem, a place where the streets aren't safe (I've experienced gang violence and been mugged four times).  I realize this all sounds like a cliché, but my entire life has been a significant challenge and few things have gone according to plan.

In my environment, being tough is valued much more than being smart. In school, gangs and drugs were cool, so my commitment to academic excellence made me a constant target, my school's "nerd." Whether it was someone looking to make a joke or who needed to show just how "hood" they were, I was the perfect scapegoat.

            There were times when I wanted to quit. I remember once asking my mother to let me drop out of school like she did. She scolded me for even having the thought and told me she never had a choice about staying in school. I, on the other hand, was considering giving up school for a foolish reason: because I faced social challenges and often felt alone.

            Her lecture made me think hard.  Her life was full of hardship, but because she never gave up, even when things didn't go her way (which was often), she was able to provide enough to give me the chance to succeed. In light of her sacrifices, who the hell was I to give up and take the easy route?  The lifestyle led by my classmates seemed to be one full of pleasures: hanging out, goofing off, having good times with no worries, not studying for tests, and skipping classes on a whim.  I suppose kids from wealthy families can get away with this behavior during their youth and still end up okay, but kids from my background don't have any margin for error.  I knew that if I were to along with what was popular, fun and easy, I would end up being nothing in life – a disaster for me and a cruel betrayal of all of my mother's sacrifices. It was hard, but I stayed on track and am proud to be a nerd.

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

            As a youth, my cousins and I spent our days playing together in the Dominican Republic, a beautiful island with magnificent scenery. We caught wild chickens with homemade traps and found creative ways to knock down coconuts. As we grew older, however, our idyllic world changed slowly but inexorably and more and more of my cousins turned into hopeless souls.

            Every time I went back to the Dominican Republic, I received the depressing news that another one of my cousins had dropped out of school, turned to drugs, and/or joined a gang.  The dreadful schools they attended failed to educate them properly or instill in them any sense of optimism, so they gave up on the world -- and the world gave up on them.

            So how did I escape this trap and why am I now on my way to success in college and in life?  It's not because I was born smarter – my cousins have the same genes as I.  The answer is simple: unlike my cousins, I was given a fighting chance.  My family moved to the United States, the land of opportunity (it sounds corny to say it, but it's true), and I was fortunate enough to attend schools where a bright, ambitious, hard-working kid could get a great education.

I am where I am today mainly because I am standing on the shoulders of many teachers who saw my potential, invested in me and helped me achieve my dreams.  Someday I hope to become a teacher or perhaps start a mentoring organization so I can help the next generation of kids – especially low-income, minority ones – follow in my footsteps.

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