Almost four years ago while visiting Jamaica I came across a mother who shared that her son was the valedictorian at his high school graduation that year. I am enthused about young people and education, so I was really excited for both mother and son. Whereas mom expressed much pride in her son’s accomplishment she was daunted by the reality that her hope and dreams for him getting a college education was quite unrealistic, as she had no means of providing the needed funds for college or the possibility of getting a loan to send him. This was disheartening, for not only was the young man academically solid, he held a part-time job as a math teacher at a local school, worked at an internet café in his hometown, and provided tech support for his schoolmates. All while attending high school.
I thought of the level of discipline it took for him to balance such a schedule; his love for technology; his commitment to his family; his selflessness; and his positive attitude that kept him moving forward day by day against all odds. I thought of the dreams that would be deferred if the most he could hope for was a job that did not allow him to use his full capacity. That, in essence, he would have to settle for less. I knew there had to be a different way. The more I thought about his situation, the more I felt compelled to do something. Anything. I had no idea how or what. I simply knew my knowing and not doing was not enough.
Conversely, when I shared with my husband what I had learned about this young man and he asked, “What are you going to do about it?”, I had no clue. Thankfully, he challenged me with more questions. Questions that forced me to think of possible solutions. My first step was to make the young man an offer that simply went, if he could take an American college entrance examination and get a score high enough to get a scholarship that covered his tuition and housing, my husband and I would cover whatever else he needed to attend college - books, clothing, pocket money, toiletries, airline ticket, etc. Part of me expected him to respond with a simple, “Okay, I will try and see.” Instead, his response was a full commitment, “Consider it done, if you are serious, I will be going to college in America. So, the question is, are you serious?”. Well, even if I had any doubt about my level of commitment up to that point, it suddenly became irrelevant. He was totally in and so was I. And so the journey began. And what a journey it has been.
The young man in his excitement and selflessness shared the good news with friends who like him had the grades, tenacity, hopes and love for subjects within the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field but lacked the financial resources to attend college. Within weeks, he had introduced a friend, who told a friend, who told another friend. Each student called to ask if I would make him/her the same offer. I did. The students formed a study group; all committed to producing high scores on the SAT, with the hope of college admission toward a STEM undergraduate degree.
By October of 2012, four students took the SAT and scored high enough to be granted scholarships to attend several colleges. After much negotiations with several colleges and universities, Claflin University, an HBCU in South Carolina, provided the best offer package; tuition, after scholarships, less than $5,000 for each student per year. However, housing was not included. At this point, I remember asking myself, “What can I sell that would raise $20,000 before the semester started?". I could not think of anything. I did not know how or where the funds would come from but I truly believed a way existed. I had made a promise to a group of young people who took me at my word. I had never met any of them face to face. All communication through the entire admission process, school selection, essay reviewing, and SAT preparation was all by emails and phone calls; constantly. I had become a mentor, friend, and to some extent, whether I liked the position or not, I had come to symbolize hope. My faith increased and so did my time spent in prayer and meditation. Clearly, this mission was way bigger than me and my capabilities.
My husband, being incredibly supportive of my efforts, brainstormed with me constantly as we tried to figure out how to provide housing and fill tuition gap of 5K per each student. Thankfully, a donor and friend who believed in what I was trying to do stepped forward and offered to pay for not one but all four students. Mr. Myers, with the support of his wife, both Jamaicans, believed that young people regardless of their financial situation should be afforded a college education. They took the challenge of providing the needed funds. Several villagers - a term and concept we use to describe anyone who believes in our mission and is willing to support it in any way - offered to be sponsors for the students. Without a sponsor, the American Immigration Department will not issue a school visa.
My husband and I rented a four bedroom cottage near Claflin University which would soon become home to the students or as it would later become, ‘the knock-off white house.’
On July 15, 2013, the four students arrived at the Atlanta International airport. I had the joy of meeting Orlando Watson, Rashshana Blackwood, Kareem Heslop and Sherlene Brown face-to-face. It was perhaps the most frightening, yet fulfilling thing I had ever done. We drove the full four and half hours to South Carolina where they would begin life in the little white house and Claflin University.
The support from the faculty and staff of Claflin University and members of the Orangeburg community was more than we could ever imagine. Villagers from Georgia who traveled with us to make sure we got settled in gave of their time, funds, groceries, household goods and more. Perhaps the most precious gift was the knowledge that we were not alone; that we had the support that was needed; that in spite of the risk that I took, as crazy as it may have seemed, we were moving the students into college and they, the villagers, would be available to ensure that things would all work out.
The first day I visited the Claflin University campus with the group of four students and two villagers, we were taken on a tour by an appointed guide. While touring the campus we were approached by the Provost. I recalled him asking the question of the students, “Do you know how you got here? Do you know why you got here?" One of the students responded, “Yes sir, we are blessed.” Dr. Wright responded by explaining that smart students are all over the world, students that have a desire and hope for more are plentiful; blessings are granted every day to students all over, what they had received, he stated, that had made all the difference in the world, was an opportunity.
I pondered on his statement for a long while until I came to full terms with its true meaning. He is correct. What hinders way too many students from getting a college education is not their ability, desire or drive, it is the opportunity. Opportunity, the great divide.
Almost four years ago, with the support and collaboration of Ms. Irella Blackwood, Passport to College was formed into a bonafide non-profit organization. Our mission is to do all we can to close the divide created by the lack of opportunities by providing as many college admission opportunities to as many students from developing countries as we can, and to continue to support them throughout their undergraduate years and into graduate school. Passport to College believes that the success of each graduate is intricately tied to the success of the family and community to which they belong or will belong. It is but one small but so effective way of enacting positive change in the world.
At the time of this writing, Passport to College has 26 students attending universities in the United States pursuing an undergraduate degree in a STEM field. They continue to make use of opportunities and have accomplished so much; certainly way more than I imagined.