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Law professors, students reach out to help area high school students make college a reality

Aubrey Everett wasn’t aware that Swarthmore College or the University of Richmond existed.  Thanks to the Simmons Memorial Foundation (SMF), however, Everett has now walked on their campuses and talked to students, faculty and administrators at those schools. 

High school students from the Winston-Salem area on a recent tour of Georgetown University.

SMF, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to helping vulnerable students attend college, sponsored a trip last month to the greater Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia regions to visit colleges and cultural sites.

Everett was a member of a select group of 22 high-achieving area high school students who recently experienced firsthand what it is like to go to college at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, Georgetown University, Howard University and the University of Richmond.

“One thing that I learned that I didn’t know there were that there were so many options of great colleges,” says the Parkland High School senior. “For example, I had never heard of Swarthmore or the University of Richmond. Both of these universities were great and made a positive impression on me. Before this trip, I didn’t know much about northern colleges in general, but this trip greatly opened my eyes.”

The purpose of the trip, according to SMF Executive Director and Wake Forest University Law Professor Omari Simmons, is to enhance the level of student enthusiasm for the college selection process.  “Our aim is to expose students to multiple college environments early in the college selection process,” he said.  “SMF selects colleges that provide a cross-section of different types of institutions (e.g., public, private, liberal arts, and historically black colleges and universities).  Ultimately, the trip provides a valuable opportunity for students to reach beyond their environment so that they can develop a frame of reference that will allow them to make a more informed decision about college.”

The SMF college trip was much more than a standard college trip.  It included a tour of the U.S. Capitol and the opportunity to network and engage with professionals from the Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia areas. Students had the opportunity to meet:  Desiree Peterkin-Bell, director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships for the mayor of Philadelphia; Nicole Isaacs, Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs to Vice President Joseph R. Biden; Kwasi Asare, Associate Director of Education Technology at the U.S. Department of Education; Vicky Beasely, Counsel, Patton Boggs LLP; Irvin Drummond, Associate, Rollins, Smalkin, Richards & Mackie, LLC; Brian Bell, Principal, Bell Enterprise Solutions; Courtney Harris, Staff Assistant, U.S. Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware; and Taquil Foster, Analyst JP Morgan Chase.  Students also attended a banquet held in their honor at a Washington, D.C. restaurant.

The college trip is just one part of the programming SMF offers area high school students.  SMF provides a range of services including college consulting, career seminars, college visits, standardized test preparation and scholarships. The nonprofit whose tagline is “Developing Potential on the Periphery,” functions as a non-traditional feeder system for selective colleges assisting vulnerable students, many of whom are first-generation college students.

“The trip reinforced the need for all of our students to have exposure to opportunities and caring adults who help them navigate what can be a daunting college admissions process,” Simmons explained.   “Nationwide there is approximately one guidance counselor for every 460 students.  As a result, many students with potential are underserved.  Our programming helps students convert their academic achievement into college outcomes that match their potential.”

Alan Hill, a University of Pennsylvania senior and SMF alumnus who is a veteran of multiple college trips, hosted the SMF group on their recent visit to the University of Pennsylvania.

“As I stand on the brink of graduating from a highly selective institution, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic when meeting with the new students of SMF,” Hill said. “I can never quantify or reciprocate the positive impact that the college trips I participated in had on my application process and success at Penn.  The great thing about SMF, however, is that you can give back almost immediately. For this reason, I was happy to lead an information session and tour for the students. I can only hope that I accomplished two things. First, that there is a difference between UPenn and Penn State and secondly, that their dreams are both tangible and attainable.”

Third-year Wake Forest law student Andy Yun was among the chaperones on the trip.

“I wanted to go because I believe in the mission,” he said. “Professor Omari Simmons is trying to help some of the bright and talented students of Winston-Salem go to college, and also to prepare them to succeed at that level.  I want to help those kids also.  A lot of times, these kids are so talented, but they don’t know what to do with it.  It’s like they’ve got winning lottery tickets, but because of misinformation and because they’re new to the process of applying to colleges, they don’t cash in that ticket.  So, it was up to us to tell them how they could really cash in on all of their hard work and dedication up to this point.”

Yun added that many of the students who went on the trip were at first reluctant to miss a few days of school because they had so many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.  “I told them that this trip could change their lives, that this trip was something they would remember in 10 years, and if they didn’t go, they’d be unlikely to remember what they did on those days just a few weeks later.”

Yun was surprised to find out what the trip meant to him.

“I’ve been through the college application and admissions process, and I learned a lot doing it.  Now, I want to share what I’ve learned about that process with these students.  The most rewarding aspect of the trip were the students.  I wish I could tell you every story.  For instance, while we were visiting the University of Richmond, Parkland High School senior D’Andre Starnes whispered to me at the beginning of the campus tour, ‘Wow, they have a really nice campus.’  During the middle of that tour, he said, ‘I definitely going to apply here.’  By the end of that tour, he told the tour guide, “’Oh, I’m coming to Richmond in the fall.’  It was good to see the students really trying to envision their lives as students at the universities that we visited.  That’s what the trip was all about—opening their minds to the myriad possibilities that are available to them.  It was really rewarding, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.”

Yun added: “Professor Simmons is really inspiring.  With the help of his father, Nathaniel, wife, Kami Chavis Simmons (also a Wake Forest law professor), and other volunteers, he gives everything he has to these students.  He sets a stellar example, and he does so much, despite having what I’m sure is a very, very busy schedule.”

Simmons also has a fan in Everett.

“I found this trip extremely inspirational because we met so many people who came from places like us and that we could relate to,” she said. “They told us about their journeys and trials that led them to be the successful people they are today. I am hoping that one day I can pass on the knowledge I have gained from that trip to others and be a success story myself.

“My favorite part of the trip was the family atmosphere and all of the opportunities Professor Simmons gave us,” she said. “He opened our eyes as to how to network and showed us that there’s ‘another world’ outside of Winston-Salem, N.C., in which we could flourish.”

Simmons asserts, “For me the most rewarding part of volunteering with SMF over the past decade has been the relationships forged and witnessing the growth and achievements of former participants who are now leaders in their chosen careers and communities.

“On the trip I had the privilege and honor of meeting phenomenal students who stepped outside of their comfort zones and some, who had never considered traveling far for college, were able to see themselves in a different context.”

Simmons added that based upon past experience “there is a strong likelihood that students on the trip will eventually attend some of the schools we visited.”  At least two SMF alums have either graduated from or currently attend three of the colleges visited on this year’s college trip —  Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania, and Howard University.

Historically, SMF participants have been admitted to a wide array of colleges and universities including:  Wake Forest University, Brown University, Davidson College, Morehouse College, Swarthmore College, Spelman College, University of Virginia, The College of William & Mary, Duke University, Wesleyan University, Princeton University, Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Howard University, UNC Chapel Hill, Hampton University, Dartmouth College, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

To learn more about SMF please visit www.smfnonprofit.org.