THE BLOG

Making the "Leep" to College, Together

02/19/2014 01:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

"I need help" were the words Kama used when she called on her second day of college orientation. Kama and I have worked together over the last five years at the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project (NJ LEEP). She is a graduate of a Newark high school and the child of a single-parent, low-income home. Kama's family has provided her with the values, focus and foundation necessary for her to accomplish all of her dreams. How, precisely, she would go about getting there is where we sought to partner with her family.

Kama had always been the most tenacious and intellectually hungry student at every level of her education. When she began the college application process, her family was strongly in favor of her staying local for school, hoping she could save money and would ultimately have the same opportunities as if she graduated from any other college. But Kama had her sites set beyond New Jersey.

In March of her senior year, Kama found out she had been accepted to Bowdoin College, Mt. Holyoke College, The College of the Holy Cross (ranked #4, #14, and #25, respectively on "U.S. News and World Reports" list of top liberal arts colleges) and many more. She ultimately elected to attend Bowdoin. Despite the $58,000 sticker price, she would only have to pay approximately $2,000 per year out of pocket.

Upon arriving to Bowdoin in the fall, Kama called me the second day of orientation hysterically crying. She was not fully aware of it, but this was the moment for which we had spent the previous four years preparing.

She explained that her classmates had been discussing Thoreau at lunch. She had never heard of him and did not even know if that was the name of the author, a character or the book itself. She immediately began to question whether she was in over her head. What Kama and I were able to do in that conversation was to re-center her. She soon remembered all that we had planned for and discussed. Knowing an author's name was not what would determine whether she would be successful in college. Her ability to adapt to the rigors of a college course load would.

It was in this moment that Kama activated all of the skills she had honed over the course of the previous four years. She recognized that she was at Bowdoin for precisely this discomfort she was now facing. Discomfort is an opportunity for growth.

When classes began, Kama was now confronted with her starkest indicator yet of the achievement gap she was up against. Despite her best efforts and diligent studying, Kama had earned a 49 on her first biology exam. In this moment, there are two things she could have done: cut and run, or dug her heels in. But Kama's family did not raise her to quit.

Over the course of the next several months, Kama executed the plan we had mapped out together before she left for college and then revised once she was in her moment of crisis. She became a regular at office hours with her professor, completely refined and revamped her study practices, ensured she was studying with the right classmates and fully relied on the abundant resources Bowdoin offers. Her efforts were reflected in her exam grades, where she improved by over 25 points on her performance from her first exam.

The above steps did not come about by chance. Kama had trained herself to actively seek support when she needed. Kama knew that college would be incredibly challenging. But challenges do not have to be limitations.

The fundamental teachings of Kama's story are illuminating.

First, Kama attends one of the top colleges in the country because she was given access to and information about this school. Providing students access to information about a range of colleges, and then supporting them through the application process is essential.

Next, upon matriculating there, Kama anticipated that she would be making up ground and she had fully prepared herself with a strategy for doing so. Expecting the hardships, planning for them and being unafraid to say "I need help" are some of the most essential skills a college student can develop.

Finally, Kama -- in her peak moment of doubt and frustration -- was then able to identify and utilize campus resources to improve her academic performance. She was sure to be honest with herself and recognize her challenges very early in the semester, before they had room to grow. Early identification of where a student is having difficulty can be determinative as to whether they are able to make adjustments while there is still enough time left in the semester.

Kama is one story out of over 40,000 students in Newark alone. The question that remains is what will we do -- as a community of private citizens, large corporations, social service organizations and so many more -- to help all students have the opportunity for empowerment that Kama has created for herself.

Matthew Feinstein is a graduate of Seton Hall Law School and is the Associate Executive Director of the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project. NJ LEEP is a four-year, college-access program for urban students from Newark, NJ and surrounding communities. 100 percent of NJ LEEP graduates have gone on to college. For more information about NJ LEEP please visit www.njleep.org.

Kama Jones-El is a graduate of NJ JLEEP and is currently a freshman at Bowdoin College. Kama is interested in becoming a forensic scientist.