Last week, over 150 students gathered in a Success Academy auditorium to learn about college life from successful African American professionals. While a typical college seminar might be packed with high school juniors or seniors — at this session, “The Black College Experience,” most participants were still half a decade away from hitting “send” on their college applications.
But for the event’s organizers — SA Harlem East community relations coordinator Liana Benjamin and operations manager Anthony Henry — there’s no such thing as preparing for college too early. The two both know what it’s like to be a person of color navigating the higher education system, and they want middle school students at SA Harlem East to learn about the challenges and rewards posed by the college experience — especially those that impact scholars of color and first generation college students.
We interviewed Anthony and Liana to learn more about the inspiration behind the panel, and what they hope scholars took away from the experience.
How did the idea for “The Black College Experience” become a reality?
Liana: Like many schools, we always celebrate Black History Month. In the past, we’ve done African dances and had scholars write about influential African Americans in history. But this year, I wanted us to do something different, an event that would feel fresh for our scholars.
Anthony: The two of us spend a lot of time talking with the kids at our school about the importance of college, but I think it helps them to hear it from other people — they get tired of hearing it from us!
Liana: So I proposed to Anthony that we tap our professional networks and bring together black, career-oriented college graduates for a panel where students could learn about all aspects of the college experience. We started calling people in our personal networks and the response was amazingly positive and enthusiastic. Among the panelists, we had two employees who work for the NBA, a senior admissions counselor at Iona College, a graduate student at Princeton, and a private school teacher. We wanted a range of individuals representing different industries.
Did your personal experiences in college influence this event?
Liana: Absolutely. I attended public schools in Harlem as a child. My high school had no resources for college preparation — no SAT tutoring, no information about financial aid or scholarships — nothing. My mom didn’t go to college, so I didn’t have guidance at home.
Thankfully, the Harlem Children’s Zone helped me prepare applications and taught me about my financial aid options. But when I got to college, I realized my education had not prepared me to be successful academically. I had to take remedial classes and I really struggled for a while before I earned my degree from CUNY-Hunter.
This panel was really special to me personally, because I think it’s so important that scholars know that Success Academy is giving them resources to help them succeed. I know students at my school are getting a better education and support with the application process, but they also need to realize that the academic habits they have today will impact them tomorrow. We want them to have good study habits and work really hard. Being able to see people who look like them on the panel, who have earned degrees and are successful, is so important.
Anthony: My experience in college was different than Liana’s, but I also struggled. I’m from the Bronx, but gained admission to Prep for Prep in middle school. Prep for Prep helped me attend an elite private high school in Rye, New York. My parents are from the West Indies and never attended college. I was prepared academically for Duke University, but as a black student, I felt out of place and lonely, and had trouble accessing the campus resources I needed to be successful. As a result, I took two leaves of absence during my time at Duke, and I graduated in six years instead of four.
It’s important for students to understand that there’s no singular path to a degree, that there might be a struggle, but it’s worth the effort.
What piece of advice did the panelists give that you hope resonated with scholars?
Anthony: Ms. Brinson talked about crying on the phone with her mom her freshmen year because she was frustrated by her academic performance. She had done so well in high school, and thought she could continue to succeed in college without too much trouble. Ultimately, she was able to access campus supports and really improve. I think that resonated with Liana’s experience, but also with our scholars. They need to realize how much their habits today will matter to them in college. We’re preparing them for success in college, but like Ms. Brinson said, they’re going to have to manage their time and access campus support networks to be successful.
We caught up with SA Harlem East 8th grader Angel Ravelo after the event, and asked him what he thought about the panelists’ advice:
Angel: Hearing from other people who went through the same struggles as we do was pretty cool. They all gave good advice on how we need to think through how to pay for college through loans and scholarships. Mr. Coleman talked about his struggles growing up in Camden, how he heard gunshots outside of his classroom, and had people in his family trying to get him to do drugs, but he still stayed focused on college as a goal. I think I can apply all of this advice to my own life — I want to go college and study psychology, because I want to help people who have suffered from trauma and make a difference in their lives. Going to college is the only way to achieve that goal.
You can watch “The Black College Experience” on Facebook Live to learn what other pieces of advice our scholar received.