From chaos in N. Phila. to a White House invitationByMartha Woodall
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Chionque Mines, 22, was not sure how to react to the news that she’d been chosen to introduce President Obama at the recent White House College Opportunity Summit.
It was the last week of classes at Goucher College, and the senior from North Philadelphia was trying to finish a paper for one class and prepare a presentation for another, and the summit was just three days away.
“I didn’t know if I should be excited or cry,” Mines recalled.
So the young woman summoned the grit, good humor, and smarts that have been attracting notice since she was a fifth grader at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School. She focused on finishing her assignments and told herself: “I’m not going to get worked up because maybe this is a mistake.”
It was no mistake.
On Dec. 4, teetering in a pair of six-inch heels, Mines described for a national audience the obstacles she overcame on her quest to become the first in her family to earn a college degree: a chaotic home life, starting kindergarten a year late, and the disruptions of attending a dozen schools.
“Being at Goucher College for four years is the longest I’ve ever been at one school,” Mines told those gathered in the Ronald Reagan Building.
Mines, who has a 3.4 average, is majoring in medical sociology and is on track to get her diploma in May. She thanked Obama for his commitment to getting more students through college successfully.
“Please help me in welcoming President Barack Obama,” said Mines, who wants to work in health care.
The president hugged her and said, “Can everybody please give Chionque a big round of applause for her great story? We are proud of what she has achieved and the spirit that she represents.”
Supporters who have known Mines for years and who are familiar with the difficulties she encountered echo Obama’s view.
“She has such a beautiful smile, is friendly to everyone, is humble, and sticks with it,” said Natalie Jansorn, an official at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in Lansdowne, Va. Jansorn has known Mines since the young woman was in seventh grade and applied to a program that provides academic counseling and summer enrichment for exceptional students with financial needs.
Marc Mannella, CEO and founder of KIPP Philadelphia, said, “We could tell when she was 10 years old [she] was not going to let any obstacles get in her way.”
Mannella’s nonprofit has four academically rigorous charter schools in the city, but when KIPP was planning to open its middle school in 2003, Mines was one of the first students whose home he visited.
“The situation was a difficult one and yet she was this incredibly special person,” Mannella said.
Mines, eldest of seven children, spent her early years with her late grandmother and two siblings in a small apartment in a pocket of North Philadelphia rocked by drugs and violence.
Her grandmother tried to provide a good home, but Mines said the woman struggled with substance abuse.
As her family situation changed, Mines was shuttled among relatives’ homes and attended several schools.
At the insistence of her mother and an aunt, she enrolled at KIPP for fifth grade. She earned straight As, and her leadership skills began to emerge.
Mannella said KIPP staffers couldn’t believe when Mines failed to return for sixth grade. So they searched for her and prevailed upon her family to allow her return the next fall.
That year, KIPP – the Knowledge Is Power Program – which operates a network of charters across the country, forged ties with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Each KIPP school nominated one student for the foundation’s Young Scholars program. KIPP Philadelphia chose Mines.
After an extensive interview process, including a day at the KIPP Foundation in San Francisco, Mines remained among a handful who made the cut.
As a Young Scholar, she was assigned an academic adviser in eighth grade who offered support – even as Mines moved from school to school. Mines participated in two summer residential programs and attended a medical camp at St. George’s University in Grenada, which kindled her interest in health services.
When her aunt moved to Florida, Mines landed at Palm Beach Central High School for her senior year. Academic advisers from the foundation helped her navigate the complicated college-selection process.
“Without my advisers at Jack Kent Cooke,” Mines said, “I would never have had that guidance.”
The advisers suggested she take a look at Goucher, outside Baltimore. She did and immediately felt at home.
As a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, Mines received a financial package the foundation put together with the college that paid her tuition and room and board.
The foundation also covered the expenses so Mines could study in Queensland, Australia, in her junior year.
At Goucher, Mines has been an adviser to new students, served as president of the Black Student Union, and interned at a clinic that provides services for teens and young adults, including those who have AIDS.
Mines also works part time in Goucher’s events office and at a campus cafe.
“I don’t have work-study because of my scholarship,” she said, adding that she had never worked fewer than two jobs while at Goucher. “I really do support myself through school,” she said.
The foundation was one of the sponsors of the White House College Opportunity Summit. Jansorn, who nominated Mines, was thrilled when the White House chose her to introduce the president.
Mines said she would always remember her encounter with Obama and talking with him about her career plans.
“I was excited I got to do this,” she said. “This is something I will remember forever.”