Celebrating KIPP college grads at Penn and beyond

By Mike Feinberg (guest column)

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I’m a huge college sports fan, but I’d take a stirring college commencement ceremony –especially one where our KIPPsters are crossing the stage – over a big Saturday game any day. That’s why I want to recognize the KIPP alumni and the thousands of other students across the country who earned a degree this spring.

As an alum of the University of Pennsylvania, I am especially excited that 13 KIPP alumni were part of Penn’s commencement last month in Philadelphia. It’s a milestone that we could only imagine when I started KIPP with Dave Levin in 1994. We are extraordinarily proud of these young people and what they have accomplished, and grateful to Penn for its joint commitment to help more underrepresented students earn a college degree.

When we founded KIPP, we knew we wanted all our students (or “KIPPsters”) to develop the skills and character strengths needed for college and life. We aimed to create a culture where every KIPPster would believe that going to and through college-even an Ivy League school- was possible, regardless of where they grew up or whether their parents had earned a degree.

So in 1997, when we started to bring our KIPPsters from KIPP Academy Houston to New York and Philadelphia on our annual east coast field trip (traveling on a bus and staying in the cheapest places we could find), I always made sure Penn was one of the places we visited. Along with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, we’d stop in at Penn to meet Professor Walter McDougall, who would give our students a lecture on the Revolutionary War, and then go see law school Professor Regina Austin, who would let our KIPPsters dig into a law school case.

We were such frequent visitors to Penn that our KIPPsters even wrote a thank you note to the owner of local institution Abner’s Cheesesteaks (rumor is that it’s still on the wall!).

But as KIPP expanded and we started seeing our alumni graduate from high school and matriculate to college, it became clear that they needed more support than we had envisioned. Getting our KIPPsters TO college was not enough; we had to help them get THROUGH college as well. So in 2012, KIPP expanded the scope of our college program and began to reach out to higher education partners who would commit to helping more KIPPsters graduate.

It was no surprise that Penn was one of the first schools to sign on as a KIPP College Partner. After all, they had been supporting KIPP informally for almost 20 years already, so the partnership was a natural fit. Right after Penn came on board in 2013, we encouraged KIPP students from across the country to matriculate, including KIPPsters from Houston, New York, and the Bay Area.

Julian Hernandez from KIPP Houston was part of this trailblazing group.  From his early days at KIPP, Julian always worked hard to achieve so he could set an example for his brothers and sisters. He said, “If I can show them what is possible, they can push themselves towards excellence too.” Apparently it worked; Julian’s younger brother is getting ready to apply to Penn this upcoming academic year. And Julian has stayed so close to his KIPP friends that four of them even traveled from Houston to Philly to celebrate his graduation from Penn this spring.

The KIPP alumni who graduated from Penn this year are moving on to amazing careers, including Ray Clark, who is working for Accenture Consulting, Geraldine Bustamante, who is headed to work for Google and Linda Valadez, who is starting at Goldman Sachs. Other alums are pursuing roles outside of business, including Abby Cacho, who is interviewing for jobs in advocacy, and Lynda Ngo, who plans to teach in San Jose.

We are extraordinarily proud of these KIPPsters- and all the 2017 graduates- and grateful to Penn for being such a strong believer in the future of every student. Our partnership has grown to the point where there will be a total of 54 KIPP alumni enrolled at Penn this fall.

But the reality is that most students from under-resourced communities – like those who attend KIPP public charter schools – have an enormous uphill battle to make it to graduation. The cost of college is the most obvious challenge, but KIPPsters also face food insecurity, worry about paying for books and housing, and often have to support their families at the same time they struggle to keep up with academics.

That’s why Penn and KIPP’s more than 80 College Partner schools play such a crucial role in increasing the odds that KIPPsters will meet their goal of graduating with a degree. Schools like the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Franklin & Marshall are proving that when colleges provide explicit support for first generation college students, they can ensure that more young people will persist to graduation.

Congratulations to all the graduates, parents, professors, administrators and leaders who helped make college dreams come true this year for KIPPsters and all the young people that crossed the stage at Penn and other colleges around the country. Go Quakers and the class of 2017!

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