“Our family emigrated to Houston, Texas, when I was 14. I knew I wanted to go to college, but there was no money, so I started researching college admissions, standardized testing (ACT, SAT, etc.), and scholarships, trying to find a way to go to college for free. I also studied independently and sat for AP exams in courses our school didn’t offer. I knew that since there was no money, I had to work hard and have good grades. My senior year, I applied to ten different schools and was accepted at all ten, but I decided on Harvard because they had something called the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative: If parents made less than $40,000, no tuition would be charged.
“After graduation, I took a position with Teach for America in Arkansas. My little sister was starting high school about this time, and my parents didn’t know how to advise her. The society we are from, Cameroon, is patriarchal, and I am the oldest male of my generation, so I was in charge of all the cousins. My responsibility also included my sisters, so my parents said to me, ‘You’ve just been through this. It’s your job to help her.' I mapped out a game plan for her for each year of high school and she followed it about 70% of the time. Teenagers! It worked out pretty well though. She just finished her freshman year at Brown, and my other sister wants to go to Stanford, so I am helping her as well.
“I saw the difference in the help I was able to give my sisters and what other kids were typically receiving in high school. Some schools didn’t even have a guidance counselor and the kids didn’t know what to take or how to prepare for college. That was my motivation for starting The College Initiative. We work with students in Memphis and Arkansas, and we see them changing the trajectory of their lives and making a future for themselves.
"There are other organizations like ours, but most of them are in the Northeast, so that's a big reason for basing our organization here. In the three years of our existence, 240 students have been through our program and are now attending college.
“When I’ve seen friends from high school who have taken different paths, they tell me they wish they had pursued an education and taken their opportunities seriously. There is only a small window to make those choices when you’re young. I majored in Economics, but Economics is not about money. It’s about choices, just like education. If you make choice A, then these are the consequences. If you make choice B, there are other consequences.
“My future wife and I will work to instill the values of my grandmother in our own children.”
For an introduction to the Special Projects Officer with this non-profit organization, see Melinda Lejman's interview.