Blue and white streamers crisscross along the wall of a school gym in East Harlem. White paper cloths cover tables. Cute graduation cap confetti dot the table tops. Plates and cups are neatly lined up. The decorations are sparse but what can you do when you’re on a limited budget? Besides, the decorations aren’t important. It’s the people attending that matter the most.
Today is your day.
SUNY Binghamton. Smith College. Marist. One by one, the seniors stepped up to the mic. With big smiles they name the colleges they’ll be attending this fall. Utica. Hamilton. NYU. A round of applause responds with each school. Whoever says these kids can’t succeed or won’t amount to much don’t know much of anything. In the grand scheme of things, graduating from high school seems like small potatoes. Add to that a 100 percent acceptance rate? Well, this small group in East Harlem is nothing but pride, excitement, and hope for the future.
The organization I work for, which I’ll call “The Program,” recently celebrated its graduating high school seniors at a “send-off” dinner. The Program isn’t huge but the event wasn’t a quiet affair, either. Between staff, family, mentors, program alumni and more, over 100 people attended the dinner. And it’s clear that The Program takes pride in its students. Graduation is a big deal (when is it not in New York City?), especially in neighborhoods like East Harlem. College-going is probably a bigger deal, still.
Compared to New York City as a whole (and most notably it’s neighbor below 96th Street), just over a third of East Harlem residents have a college degree, and 31 percent of residents live below the Federal Poverty Level.1 2 For a program whose mission is to improve the outcomes of East Harlem kids, bumping up the statistics—even if just a little—is a big deal.
To definitively say The Program had an impact on the kids it serves is difficult to say. Would these students be where they are if they weren’t enrolled in The Program? If The Program didn’t exist? One can speculate but that’s not useful. There’s one thing I can say about The Program, though. Almost all of the kids who participate are influenced by The Program’s offerings, whether by its mere existence or the many volunteers who teach and mentor, or by the staff who manage and provide the students with structure for success.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Every year, the seniors in The Program draft a Last Lecture. The best essay is awarded a scholarship and presented as a keynote at the annual fundraising gala. The top four essays are presented at the send-off dinner. If you think kids who grow up in places like East Harlem or the South Bronx are lazy, apathetic to social events, unintelligent, let me tell you something. They may not be “intelligent” or as active in the way kids south of 96th Street might be, but these kids have an intelligence of their own making. They’re very much connected to what’s happening in the world and very attuned to how those events impact their lives. They don’t live in a vacuum and we—the rest of us who are not these kids—should recognize.
The essays weren’t masterpieces by any means, but the rawness of its contents reminds you (or awakens you) to the realities of the kids’ lives. They’re not blind to the ways certain decisions could have made or broken them. Many of them were initially skeptical about joining The Program, or begrudgingly did so at the behest of a parent. But by the end, it’s clear the positive force The Program has played in their lives. They passed a class they were struggling in. They graduated high school, they obtained a summer internship, they became better writers, they were accepted into their dream school. For those with specific aspirations (like becoming a cardiac surgeon), they’re one step closer to that reality.
You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
I don’t remember much from my own high school graduation, but I definitely did not have what these kids have. I won’t deny it. I felt a tinge of something as each senior named the colleges they’re attending. A tinge of something as the four seniors read their Last Lectures. Nostalgia for some missed experience? Envy? Jealousy? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve only been with The Program for just over 10 months, and my job is not a student-facing one. I don’t really know the kids that well, but I’ve gotten to know some of them from the few times I spent time with the high school program. I’m proud of them. A sense of worry looms over my head—will they transition okay to college? will they pass their classes? will they have the support they need while they’re away from home? Despite these worries I also have a good feeling. These are bright kids.
I hope nothing but greatness for them. Congratulations, Class of 2017.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!*
*Oh, the places you’ll go —Dr. Seuss