Law professor, students help high school students get accepted into top universities

Paige Woods was a bright junior in the international baccalaureate program at Parkland High School when she joined the Simmons Memorial Foundation’s college mentoring program for high achieving students.

Woods planned to “go to college,” but she initially expected to attend a state university or historically black college close to home.

After participating in the foundation’s programs, Woods was accepted into Harvard University’s class of 2016 — a dream she credits the nonprofit with making possible.  This is no small feat as Harvard accepted less than 6 percent of its applicants, that is, 2,032 out of 34,302 total applicants, said Wake Forest Law Professor Omari Simmons, who is also the executive director of the Simmons Memorial Foundation.

Woods was also accepted at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hampton University and the University of Richmond.  She received roughly a million dollars in scholarships and grants from various colleges and universities.

“Many of the more selective schools, such as Harvard, were schools that I never imagined I would be accepted into,” she said. “SMF has been an insightful and tremendous blessing from the very start and it has encouraged me to pursue avenues of higher education that I would have never imagined.”

Woods is the type of student that Simmons wants to reach. She is a smart and motivated young leader, but needed a strategy to navigate the complex college admissions process that can overwhelm students and parents. 

“Paige’s success is attributable to her hard work and willingness to get outside of her comfort zone,” Simmons said.   “She will accomplish big things at Harvard and beyond.” 

Simmons started the nonprofit 15 years ago in Delaware. Since that time, he has helped hundreds of students, on a volunteer basis, to achieve their college goals.  Simmons grew up in rural Delaware and as a teenager, he began to question why so many of his intelligent classmates were channeled into community colleges, factory work or enlisted military service.

“For a range of reasons, they were not able to convert their hard work and talents into a college outcome worthy of their potential,” he said. “I thought that was somewhat unfair or unjust.  

“The decision of whether and where to attend college is perhaps the biggest adult decision students have made at this stage of their lives.  Yet many students do not get the guidance or advice needed to secure better opportunities.  This is a national issue.  Research shows that many students do not receive adequate college counseling in public schools across the nation, especially vulnerable students who are more likely to depend on teachers and other school officials for college information.  SMF helps fill this void by providing free services that normally cost hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars.”   

The nonprofit provides free college counseling, college tours, SAT preparation assistance, and encouragement. Students attend seminars at Wake Forest law school during the school year.  These sessions coincide with the college admissions calendar.  SMF also provides scholarships for students. 

SMF began programming in North Carolina just three years ago. Students are referred to the program through guidance counselors, community organizations and people in the community who are familiar with SMF’s work.

This year other students that the foundation worked with are attending Cornell University, Oberlin College, Davidson College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, North Carolina State University,  the University of Virginia and other colleges and universities. 

Matthew McClellan (’12) volunteered with the foundation as a mentor because he wanted to repay the help and guidance he received in applying to college. He finds he gets as much out of the experience as the high school students.

“Higher education is an important investment; choosing an institution to suit their needs and future career paths should not be something that is merely ‘settled on’ out of convenience,” he said. “SMF students have been my source of motivation because of their drive and determination to expand their horizons though education.”

For Woods, who visited nine competitive colleges through SMF tours, one of the program’s biggest benefits is that it not only pushed her to aim high, but also supported her throughout the entire process.

“I was still terrified about attending Harvard, even after being accepted, and it took a whole lot of prayer and encouragement from those at SMF and others who went through the program to overcome my fear,” she said. “It wasn’t until I visited Harvard through their weekend visitation program in April and saw how many normal and down-to-earth people were there that I committed to attending.”