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Changing Perceptions and Futures through Preparation

By Gabriel Fotsing, founder and CEO, The College Initiative

The College Initiative creates a path between Delta students and college education

A few years ago, I struck up a conversation with a soon-to-be graduating high school senior in the Arkansas Delta about her plans for college. I found out college was one of the furthest things from her mind. She didn't see higher education as a realistic opportunity and wasn’t sure what she’d do with her life. 

Today, she’s completing her sophomore year at Harvard University on scholarship. Yes, the Harvard University. And with a 3.75 grade point average, she’s not just making it. She’s thriving and opening a world of opportunity that once seemed impossible. Stories like that are why, in 2012, I founded The College Initiative – a program designed to help college-capable high school students in the Arkansas Delta and Memphis with the tools and mentorship to successfully apply to and succeed in college.

As a high school teacher in Marianna, Ark. with the Teach For America program, my eyes were opened to the untapped potential in the Delta region. There were a lot of really bright kids, but very few of them had ever considered taking the ACT or SAT, let alone applying to college. Since nobody in their own families had gone to college, they just assumed it wasn’t for everyone. But, having emigrated from Cameroon to the U.S. with my family as a boy, I’d faced many of the same hurdles. I not only learned to speak English, but also took the necessary steps to earn a scholarship to Harvard and became the first member of my family to receive a college diploma.

So many students in underserved communities aren't thinking about the basic requirements, like GPA and extracurricular involvement, preparing for the ACT and SAT. Even fewer are thinking about what college or university would be right for them. Which ones offer the kinds of financial aid or scholarship packages that will make going to college a reality? And when they set foot on campus, how will they handle the culture shock?

With the support of such organizations as the Walton Family Foundation, The College Initiative is arming students with the information and confidence they need. Over the past three years, every high school senior we’ve worked with has been accepted into colleges and universities. Through our focus on college planning and preparation, students have averaged a four-point increase on their ACT scores and earned a combined $10 million in scholarships. With a goal of serving 5,000 students over the next three to five years, we’re just getting started.

The College Initiative is committed to the Delta. The vision is to turn this region into a place where colleges and universities from across the country actively recruit, rather than fly over. College Initiative participants are already changing perceptions.

We started working exclusively with high school seniors, but we’ve since expanded to offer our programming the day they set foot on a high school campus. We’re focusing specifically on the mid-south first because that’s where we see the greatest need. Ultimately, the idea is for schools across the country to invest more in making sure students have a plan in place to get into college. That’s when the greatest long-term benefits will be realized.

By Gabriel Fotsing, founder and CEO, The College Initiative