Dr. Porterfield delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the National College Advising Corps, through which 335 recent college graduates serve as college counselors in high needs communities in 18 regions. Franklin & Marshall College sponsors a group of 12 counselors in central and rural Pennsylvania, the only liberal arts college to host an NCAC team.
Thank you, Bob [Freund], for that gracious introduction and for your extraordinary leadership of the Keystone chapter of National College Advising Corps, which we are so proud to host at Franklin & Marshall College.
My title is “Believe in Savannah.” You’ll see why in a few minutes…
But first, let me say that I’m excited to be here with 335 hard-charging, mind-expanding, college-loving, life-saving, dream-inducing, caffeine-chugging, future-making college advisors, their leaders, our supporters, and our leader Nicole Hurd and her great team. It’s an honor to meet Emily Foimson from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, who was on the scene eight years ago when our college counselor corps could gather around a couple tables, and now look our size and strength. Thank you so much, Emily.
To the counselors: Thank you for bringing good soil, water and sunlight to each and every one of those bushes and saplings growing in your high school gardens.
Why am I here this morning? I am here because young people are the future of America—and you are creating that future.
The future of America is a 15 year-old sophomore in Illinois who likes chemistry more than she thought she would, but also has it in her head that no one from her neighborhood goes to college.
The future of America is a 16 year-old Wyoming junior who’s earning A’s and B’s and works nights at Dairy Queen while wondering if he’ll make a mark in this world.
The future of America is 17 year-old senior in Texas; she came here as a two-year old, Dream Act eligible, the oldest of six. She’s done everything right and earned good grades even after learning the hard truth at an early age that her legal status means that she’d need to live in the shadows. Her question and her parents’ is not if college, because they know the value of education…but how, when, where, and if the risks can be managed.
These students are the future of our country. Young people, wherever they live, and whatever their family circumstances, deserve the chance to climb the educational ladder as high as their minds and hearts and spines will take them. That’s what America and NCAC are all about. Notice I said “spines.” That’s because when I look at our students I see a collection of potentialities and qualities and aspirations and talents and histories and cultures and families, all parts of the spine that helps us push through obstacles in college and in life.
Let me tell you a story about perseverance. Each summer Franklin & Marshall College hosts a pre-college program for high-achieving rising seniors from top educational networks serving underrepresented communities. Our faculty teach, our students mentor, and the students enjoy the affective experience of learning 24/7 and owning a college campus for three weeks. Thanks to the Keystone College Advisors, last year’s group of 60 students from around the country also included 20 students from rural Pennsylvania—another example of how Bob Freund’s Band of Brothers and Sisters goes the extra mile.
Well, last summer, through F&M College Prep, I had the chance to meet a rising senior from a KIPP school in the Bronx named Olamide Adams. This young woman brought brains, fire, wit, and a critical social eye to the program and was admired by all. Later I learned that her mother, Ann Adams, an immigrant from Nigeria, put her in a position to excel by moving heaven and earth to ensure that she always had access to New York City KIPP schools from 5th grade on, even though that meant daily subway commutes as much as 90 minutes one way.
Well, just this past weekend we hosted an open house on campus in Lancaster. At 9:00 a.m. from my spot at the podium, I looked out into the crowd and saw Olamide back at the scene of her July triumphs, with Ann sitting by her side. They’d left their home on the far east side of Brooklyn at 4:00 in the morning to catch the series of trains needed to reach campus on time. Olamide wanted to show her mother the campus and the people that she had been talking about since the summer, and Mrs. Adams was willing to spend her time and her hard-earned money to support her daughter.
Born in Nigeria, with her belief in the power of education, Ann Adams is as American as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Each of you, as counselors, need to find those heroes and heroines among the families you serve.
At F&M we stand with Ms. Adams and her daughter.
That’s why we’re the only liberal arts colleges to sponsor a NCAC team.
That’s why we’ve increased financial aid by 50 percent in the past two years—helping more middle-income and lower-income families afford college.
That’s why we’re teaming up with KIPP, with Cristo Rey, with Achievement First, with Mastery, with Uncommon Schools, with YES Prep, with Noble Public Charter Schools, with College Match in California, and with any other entity dedicated to closing the achievement gap and launching students towards empowered lives in the economic mainstream.
That’s why we’ve doubled our longtime investment in the Posse Foundation and will now award ten Posse scholarships per year to STEM-focused students from Miami while sustaining our commitment to ten students per year from New York City.
And that’s why we’ve created a new role at F&M—Senior Associate Dean for Planning and Analysis of Student Outcomes, held by Donnell Butler, Ph.D.—to help us assess in real time how all students are learning—or not learning—and what more we can do before, during and after college to help first generation and underrepresented students to thrive.
I want to be direct and say that we hope you’ll suggest that your students take a look at F&M. Tell them that no college believes more in the boundless growth that comes when young people dig deep in college to discover what their minds can do.
It is important that each of you form relationships like the one I want you to have with F&M with countless colleges all across the country. We have an American imperative to provide an empowering education to all our young people, from kindergarten through college and beyond. It is vital to our national soul, to the very idea of America, as well as to our national competitiveness in a high-tech global economy.
We need to draw that talent from the full American mosaic, and from the full spectrum of the American economy. We have to make sure that the next generation of American leaders in business, in national security, in education and entrepreneurship, in health care and in government and in the arts, are drawn from the full country. We need tomorrow’s leaders to live and learn and work and play together in college, to love learning together, and thus to see themselves as interwoven in the fabric of one country and one future. We don’t have mind to waste—and if higher education doesn’t create this collective sense of one America, who will?
Indeed we have an impending leadership gap in our country, one that only education can address. We’re not on track today to create a deep national pool of well-educated Americans to be the broad-based leaders we’ll need for the country we’ll be in 2042.
To that point, let’s do an exercise: Can you all please stand?
Let’s imagine that we in this room all of us represent all 9th grade public school students in the 50 largest cities in America. That’s 595,000 14 or 15 year-olds. Scary.
Could the half of the room to my right please sit down? You represent the fifty percent of today’s 9th graders who, sadly, if history repeats itself, will not graduate from high school.
Could the front half of those still standing now sit? Thank you. You represent the fifty percent of high school graduates projected not to attend college.
Now, with only 25 percent of our original number still standing, could the far 2/3 of you to my left who are still standing now take your seat? You’re the ones who will start college but not finish.
That leaves us with this tiny group still on their feet—the eight percent of today’s urban 9th graders statistics predict will earn a college degree.
That’s the future of America—our future—unless we change it together.
Here is another statistic. Research shows that among families earning less than $35,000 per year, only 1 in 17 students will earn a 4-year degree. All across this country, rural, suburban and urban.
Or consider this: According to Andrew Delbanco, only three percent of all of the students in America’s top 150 colleges and universities come from the bottom economic quartile of the country.
We’re here today because we’re about changing that. We all know that graduating from college gives one more financial resources, more pathways to graduate study, more long-term economic opportunities, and more ways of giving back to society than not going to college. We all know that.
We’re here because you believe you’re going to change the world, and that inspires me.
I see a few of you smiling. Exactly. We’re here to change the world. Don’t ever doubt that your work is transformational. It changes lives, and it will change the face of our country. It already is.
The National College Advising Corps is reaching out to students who don’t have enough help preparing for college in 389 schools in 14 states across the country.
In F&M’s Keystone Region NCAC program, our college advisors met with more than 7,000 Pennsylvania high school students one-on-one last year. That represents more than sixty percent of the total population of the rural high schools where they work.
Keystone Region college advisors helped more than 3,700 students meet with college representatives and 1,200 go on campus tours. They filled in more than 350 FAFSAs and helped nearly 700 students get fee waivers for their college applications. Those fee waivers really matter—because they send the message that colleges want the student to apply, and just that, feeling wanted, is a huge motivator to the 17 year-old soul.
And our counselors did still more last year, teaming up together to host at F&M a special College Summit for 200 students, and then to help 20 students from their schools be part of the free summer program that Olamide attended. Let me show you a video of what our Keystone-NCAC counselors did together.
This video speaks volumes about how much you can do as counselors. And that’s just in one year, in one state. Think what your collective work this coming year is going to mean for talented kids across America who thought college was out of reach.
I’d like to ask the Keystone NCAC team to stand and be recognized for terrific leadership. Thank you.
I want to invite to the stage two people who I admire, two people who are part of that future of America—Gilbert Bonafé and Savannah Fritz, who I’m honored to share to share the mic today.
Gilbert is a college advisor at Greencastle-Antrim high school in rural Pennsylvania, where about eighty-five percent of the students will be first-generation college goers and where twenty percent qualify for the federal free lunch program. Gilbert was the first advisor to work in this school and had to start his program from scratch.
A child of the Bronx—the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”—Gilbert originally thought four-year college was out of reach. Instead, he went to Aviation Public High School in Queens to become an airplane mechanic. Through Upward Bound and a counselor who saw his potential, Gilbert applied for the Posse Program and earned a full scholarship to Dickinson College.
Yes, it was a big adjustment, but he did it. And he loved college so much he wanted to share it with others, which is why he’s here.
Last year, Gilbert met one-on-one with nearly half of the students in his school, including one Savannah Fritz.
Savannah is a driven young woman, a real leader in her school. She and I became friends this summer because, thanks to Gilbert and her parents who join us today, she spent three weeks on campus in F&M College Prep and loved it.
During her junior year, with Gilbert’s help, Savannah was named a Lenfest Scholar, which will help her pay for college. She’s now a senior and in the process of applying to colleges, and I know she has set her sights high.
[Dr. Porterfield asked Gilbert and Savannah a few questions about why excellent college counseling matters. Their answers are paraphrased here.]
Gilbert: An excellent college advisor goes the extra mile, creating opportunities for students—and for the school itself—that they may not have taken on their own. A good advisor helps a student envision his or her time on campus and works with their students to find a school that matches their personality, strengths, and needs. We need to push the envelope in our schools and create a culture that expects all students to consider the benefits of college, and then to help those students get positioned well for a challenging and transformational college experience.
Savannah: Gilbert, while new to our school, took the risk of getting to know us and made sure he was approachable. As a college advisor, you have to push us to take risks and also know that some of us are shy or may not have thought about college before. Before Gilbert’s help, I never thought about the idea of attending a top-tier school. Now, I want to push myself and see all the options I’ll have if I work hard.
Thank you, Gilbert and Savannah, for representing what NCAC is all about. And thank you to Savannah’s parents, Toby and Stacy, for believing in her and her generation so much that you drove her down here today to pump up this crowd.
Let’s imagine that all of us in this room represent the roughly 4,000 colleges and universities in this country. How many of you would like Savannah Fritz in your student body? And how many of you believe that you have a group of Savannah Fritz’s right there in front of you, right there for the launching?
This is my message: Stand with Savannah and stand with all of our students.
There is no work more worthwhile than what you are doing. Reach down deep and find abilities you didn’t even know you had. For example, when you are out talking tomorrow with representatives in Congress—your representatives—be convincing. Let your passion for this work shine through. Tell them that this program represents an investment in precious lives, in America’s future, and in a strong tomorrow that those of us who are older will never see but will help create in the minds and hearts of our children by investing in transformational education.
This year in Pennsylvania, we got hit with a midyear funding reduction of about $400,000 that occurred because of a blocked synapse between government offices in Pennsylvania and in Washington, DC. We’re coping this year, but this is no way to create the future of America.
And so, as leaders, we need you to do your part, even as you counsel well, to also get deeply engaged in education as a social and political issue. Make sure that little kids who are too young to vote and don’t know whether they’re Republicans or Democrats have vital voices like yours speaking up for them.
One final exercise: Let’s imagine for a minute that all of our thousands of students are contained within this one figure of Savannah Fritz—which, given her superpowers, doesn’t seem implausible…
When you’re working with Savannah, set the highest expectations. Believe that she can do it, and your belief will help make it so.
Push her to dream big. Push her to work hard. Push her to think for herself. Push her to give back. Push her to believe, just as you do.
Listen to her. Earn her trust. Show your respect. Will your belief into her self-belief.
Create a pro-college culture throughout the school, like Gilbert is doing, so that it’s more than you alone reinforcing to her every day the idea that college counts and she can do it. Find your allies. Create a winning team, a pro-college team. Your teammates are there.
And when you have a hard day and feel like you’re not reaching the students, when a teacher looks past you or a group of students seem listless, when you can’t get traction and feel very alone…
In those times, remember this message: Don’t fall back, step up.
Step up by meeting with teachers and getting them to tell you about each student’s talents.
Step up by calling a meeting of parents and helping them see that college is the land of opportunity and they don’t have to fear the dreaded FAFSA form.
Step up by remembering the college friends and faculty members who changed your lives, who are now part of who you are, and using that richness in your live as a battery pack to power on.
You are in a position of unique leadership. Be relentless. Be creative. Be positive. Be unified. Believe in your students. Believe in Savannah. And believe in your power, even acting alone, to be the change-maker that makes all the difference.
Have a great year, and thank you.