College Access Advocacy: the Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College

The 2012 College Access Fellows of the Center's Partners for Change program Last Saturday, I attended the second annual Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to support the Partners for Change Fellows in their College Access and Success advocacy event. As I entered the sun-soaked new building at John Jay, I was pleased to see two bright-eyed and smiling Partners for Change Fellows registering and welcoming students and families to the event. During their eight month tenure with Partners for Change, the College Access and Success Fellows studied and provided service to local nonprofit organizations that tackle issues of low academic achievement, lack of college information, retention and attrition rates, and insufficient advising, among other root causes.

Inspirational Stories The Bridge Builders Forum was aimed at providing students and families access to some of the city’s best resources in the pre-college field. These resources included everything from the inspirational stories of keynote speakers Bernard Gassaway and Baruti Kafele to workshops like “Parent Workshop: Parent’s Guide to Financial Aid and Scholarships,” facilitated by Powell Center Leader-in-Residence Allison Palmer. In addition to the keynote address and workshops, the day closed with a band performance, a raffle (including some high-ticket college essentials, like laptops and iPods), and closing remarks.

With so many inspiring options to choose from, I found myself at the workshop, “Envisioning My Future: Panel of Professionals,” which included a diverse panel of professionals, from a Latina MIT graduate to a woman who pulled herself out of juvenile delinquency through college to eventually become the director of a State office. The conversations at this workshop included the benefits and challenges of living off-campus, how to make the most of your college experience, why homework sometimes feels like jumping through hoops, and how to network effectively. During the Q & A, as the panelists spoke about their own experiences and career trajectories, a common theme emerged: volunteering.

The Value Added of Volunteering The theme was surprising, yet welcome, and as a long supporter of the myriad benefits of volunteering and its role in career exploration, it was wonderful to hear the professionals’ own stories of volunteering and the value it added to their careers. Sally Santiago, played a slideshow of her work with Women in Leadership Development, including a photo of her smiling alongside former President Bill Clinton, which she explained was an experience that grew from her contribution as a volunteer. Kishan Shah, a panelist who currently works as an Investment Analyst at Goldman Sachs, pushed the students to get out there and offer services as a volunteer, build a network, be proactive and figure out what it is “you want.” If you want to work for a technology start-up organization, he suggested, do some research, get on the phone, and ask if you can come in to volunteer and learn about their organization. The final question from the audience was “how old do you have to be to volunteer?” to which the panelists echoed a resounding “you’re never too young to volunteer!”

Providing Passion and Purpose I left the session feeling part inspired, part awed, and part nostalgic when I suddenly stumbled upon another smiling College Access and Success Fellow eagerly directing participants through the halls of John Jay. Thinking now about the warmth and smiles of the Partners for Change Fellows, I can only assume their upbeat attitude was not due to their required arrival time at 8:30 a.m. on a warm, sunny Saturday, but rather their ability to support and advocate for an issue they came to know so intimately this year. As a former student and professional in the “college access and success” field, I can say from experience that the issue and its root causes can often feel both nebulous and insurmountable. However, alongside the event organizers, our fellows were able to be the backbone of an event that is providing concrete solutions and steps that can be taken to address this community issue. I’m certain the fellows were also given some sense of hope to see so many professionals using “passion and purpose,” to quote keynote speaker Baruti Kafele, to affect change in the futures of NYC college students.—Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center's Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors here.