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Prep Programs: Expanding Opportunity Through Education

February 1, 2016
Exeter student Mykel Miller on campus

Mykel Miller ’16, on forming the student club Young Brothers’ Society: "[So] all men of color can feel at home, wherever they may be."

By Genevieve Beckman Moriarty

A varsity athlete who throws a shot 48 feet and hurls a discus up to 129 feet in track and field competitions, Mykel Miller ’16 is equally comfortable dissecting the role of gender in society or teaching young kids to play chess and quidditch. A natural leader, Miller was selected as a student listener and a dorm proctor for Main Street North. He is the children’s coordinator for the Exeter Social Service Organization’s 25 children’s clubs and one of ESSO’s eight board members. An advocate for gender equality, he is a devoted member of Fem Club, a feminist advocacy group at Exeter. He plans to pursue a dual major in women and gender studies and Chinese language, which he hopes to combine with a premed track. ”With my interest in medicine and working with children,” says Miller, ”I definitely see myself as a pediatrician someday.”

Miller, who attended public elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, began to yearn for boarding school life after reading The Catcher in the Rye. Undeterred by his teacher’s warnings that schools like Exeter were only for rich white kids, he became affiliated with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and PREP 9, two organizations dedicated to bridging the education gap for exceptional students from underprivileged backgrounds. Exeter currently enrolls nearly 80 students affiliated with one or more prep programs, designed like PREP 9 and Jack Kent Cooke to mitigate the effects of an unequal public education system that leaves schools in low-income areas struggling for resources. Such organizations give underrepresented students access to the challenging curriculum and wealth of opportunities found at top secondary and postsecondary institutions and offer support in the form of scholarships, long-term academic advising, mentoring, and college and career counseling.

Nationwide, the high school graduation rate for Hispanic and African-American students is 10 to 15 percent lower than it is for white students, and while the overall graduation rate across the U.S. is closing in on 90 percent, it hovers between 60 and 70 percent in urban areas with the highest concentrations of low-income students, regardless of race, according to a 2014 report released by Johns Hopkins University. In the face of such statistics, Dean of Multicultural Affairs Rosanna Salcedo sees our partnership with such prep programs as a social justice imperative. ”As the world becomes increasingly global and income disparity continues to grow,” she argues, ”it’s a societal responsibility to make sure we are educating all students.”

Working in tandem with these programs, Exeter is able to reach more students while continuing its mission of serving ”youth from every quarter.” Access to the rich resources and programming at a school such as Exeter expands students’ possibilities, enabling them to reach their full potential. Salcedo, who is also an instructor in the Modern Languages Department, is quick to point out that this is not just a practical matter, but a spiritual one, too: ”We want these kids to thrive. We don’t just want them to survive.”

The students who come to Exeter are, in their own estimation and by all external measures, certainly thriving. Opportunities for transformation are the programs’ biggest gifts. In turn, students contribute as much to the community as they gain, bringing their passion, their talents and their myriad voices to the classrooms, hallways and playing fields.

Raul Galvan ’17 lives just outside of Chicago. The son of immigrants who came to the United States as children, he will be the first in his family to attend college. Galvan says boarding schools were not on his radar screen until he heard about them from an adviser at the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, a program that provides educational opportunities and scholarship assistance to Chicago youth from low-income families. While his parents had hoped he would attend one of the excellent Catholic schools in the area, Exeter’s residential life and array of activities were a big draw for him. Despite their initial reluctance to let him go so far away, his parents found reassurance in talking to other parents who were part of Daniel Murphy’s extensive alumni network. Galvan says it was important for them ”to see that it gets better...that it’s not always sad.” His mother warmed to the idea first. ”She saw I would get a lot out of it,” he says.

Raul Galvan '17: "It was something that I was really passionate about, but not something I thought I could become good at..."

Director of Admissions Michael Gary considers programs such as Daniel Murphy to be extensions of his admissions team, helping them find and attract exceptional students who, like Galvan, may never have considered boarding schools. Institutions like Exeter, Gary says, ”continue to be a foreign concept to many families. By breaking down stereotypes and building relationships … these programs play a paramount and pivotal role in encouraging families to even look at us.”

Galvan becomes animated as he talks about his ”Wentworth brotherhood” and landing a lead role in the fall DRAMAT production of Blood Wedding. Galvan, who fell in love with acting during his eighth-grade district musical, says his work in the Department of Theater and Dance has been a huge step up from where he was before. ”It was something that I was really passionate about, but not something I thought I could become good at because at my middle school, the resources were not so good,” he says. Galvan delights in telling of the ways he has grown and stretched himself since his arrival — including his discovery that this city boy is a nature lover who enjoys running on Exeter’s trails, surrounded by trees, or being out on the water during crew practice. A coxswain for the boys team, Galvan had never heard of the sport until he came to Exeter, but has discovered it’s a good fit, noting, ”Coxswains are the leaders, the minds of the boat.” He appreciates that responsibility and the chance to discover a new side of himself.


Navigating Different Environments

When Alayna D’Amico ’19 arrived at the Bancroft dorm last July to attend Exeter Summer School, she was surrounded by family members and looked a little bit stunned. As a participant in Exeter’s newly launched E3: Enrich, Enhance, Excel, D’Amico had been invited to take part in a five-week summer enrichment program for low-income and first-generation students entering the Academy as preps in the fall. Like PREP 9 and the other external programs, E3 is designed to foster a smooth transition, equipping students with the skills and tools needed to navigate their new environment with confidence.

Alayna D’Amico ’19: ”There were friends I made [last] summer who I knew would be part of the next four years.”

D’Amico, whose sister had a positive experience at Exeter, hadn’t anticipated just how hard it would feel to be away from home for the first time, even though she lives only 45 minutes away, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her struggles with homesickness and culture shock were exacerbated by her own ambivalence about whether she was at Exeter for her own reasons or was merely trying to meet other peoples’ expectations. Having a supportive network on campus helped in her decision-making. ”There were friends I made [last] summer who I knew would be part of the next four years,” she says, ”and I knew Dean Salcedo was on my side.” D’Amico also realized that she would have to separate herself to some degree from the daily life at home in order to truly feel a part of life at Exeter.

Miller experienced some of those same complexities when he first arrived. He says young men of color who attend boarding school can feel like ”oreos” — black on the outside, white on the inside — but ”too black to fit in.” Inspired by his own desire to shape an authentic identity while making a new home for himself, he started the Young Brothers’ Society at Exeter to give ”black men on campus a place to joke around, recount experiences, and most of all, be [ourselves] without fear of being judged.” The group aims to help ”all men of color feel at home, wherever they may be,” says Miller.

Salcedo says it’s not unusual for students to experience a bit of dislocation when they first arrive on campus. ”There are all kinds of rules and ways of being and cultural nuances about being in a school like this that can make it different and difficult to adapt,” she says. ”Some of the challenges have to do with feelings of inadequacy, or guilt, and having to navigate between multiple environments — that can shake their sense of identity.” By pre-empting some of those challenges, prep programs can fortify students before their arrival and help them feel more comfortable as they settle in.


Providing Strategies and Support

A division of Prep for Prep, PREP 9 assists outstanding students of color from the greater New York City area in applying to independent boarding schools in New England. With its rigorous screening process, the program can rightly boast that it’s harder to get into than Harvard. And if getting in is tough, sticking with it is even tougher: Once admitted, students undergo an intensive 14-month ”boot camp” to prepare them for success in an independent boarding school setting. Preparation includes a full academic course load in the summers before and after eighth grade, with about four hours of homework a night, and Saturday classes throughout the school year. Only a small percentage of Prep for Prep students transition into PREP 9, and a smaller percentage still will make it all the way through the boot camp. Those who do are well prepared for the demands of high school and living a life of leadership.

His PREP 9 training helped Miller survive the entry to Exeter with its demanding work load — a transition that can be difficult for many entering preps. While his first term grades were admittedly a mixed bag (with an easy A in math and a hard-earned C in Chinese), he feels he had an advantage over those peers who hadn’t yet developed a strong work ethic or learned ”how to push themselves to the limit.” Armed with the knowledge he’d gained from PREP 9 that ”success comes from hard work,” Miller kept working to become proficient in the new and difficult language, and he fell in love with it in the process. Last summer, sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, he spent four weeks traveling and studying in China as part of an intensive cultural and language immersion program. ”I was able to get around by train and hold conversations, despite what a hard time I had initially with Chinese class,” he says with a note of delight.

Jena Yun ’17, another Jack Kent Cooke scholar, was assigned an educational adviser in eighth grade who visited her at home in Fresh Meadows, a neighborhood in Queens, New York, where she and her sister attended a public middle school. During the high school selection process, Yun’s adviser helped her select schools that would be a good fit and set regular deadlines for her to meet. ”I don’t have the same guidance from my family and sister here,” says Yun. ”So, paving your own way, that’s part of the reason I came ... but it can also be challenging.” Now that Yun is here, she talks to her adviser at least once a month to set up goals and form an independent learning plan.

Jena Yun '17: "Paving your own way, that's part of the reason I came..."

By supplementing what the prep programs provide and reaching out to include students who are not affiliated with them, the Offices of Multicultural Affairs and Financial Aid work to widen the web of support for underrepresented students. Beyond providing a safe place for students to voice their concerns and raising cultural awareness among the larger student body, they can also use discretionary funds to finance sports equipment, formal attire, college visits or visits from family when costs are prohibitive. ”We look at students with a cultural lens and try to give them what they need to feel a sense of ownership and belonging at Exeter,” says Salcedo.

Sarah Hardcastle ’19, who like D’Amico attended Summer School orientation with E3, says the close bonds she formed over the summer gave her more confidence when transitioning into the regular session. ”Because we spent so much time together, we became a tight-knit group,” she says. In addition to all of the practical help E3 has given her (like ”getting the gist of Harkness” and getting to know campus), those friendships have been a source of strength. Having such close ties already when the school year began ”helped me feel more comfortable approaching other people as well,” she says.


Sparking a Desire to Change the World

Prep Malobika Syed’s speech is peppered with maxims and inspirational quotes, expressed with irresistible enthusiasm. Wearing an Exeter sweatshirt, with her hair in a messy side braid, she waves her hands and speaks about her passion for social and racial justice.

Malobika Syed '19: "...Imagining what can happen, makes me see I do have something to work for."

Syed is the youngest of four kids, all of whom went from their public elementary school in the Bronx to independent boarding schools in New England through PREP 9. Her brother Milton ’14 — who was head of the Academy’s Muslim Student Association while a student at Exeter and is now studying at Harvard — is her role model. She gained a lot from witnessing his perseverance, commitment to his studies and involvement in extracurricular activities. ”I saw that he was smart but also well-rounded,” she says. ”Looking at his successes forced me to work harder and showed me what I could do.”

Syed’s involvement in PREP 9 helped her cultivate an intense appreciation for the multitude of voices, personalities and opinions she encounters at Exeter. She says she was drawn to the school’s size and diversity, and feels the PREP 9 orientation prepared students well to appreciate and navigate cultural differences. ”It really prepared us to break the habit of fitting into stereotypes. It’s not only an academic process, but it makes us into better people,” she adds.

Syed lights up when she talks about being ”woke,” a term used to describe a person’s awareness about issues of racial and social justice. She is thrilled to have found ”so many amazing friends full of character and ambition at Exeter [who] all speak out against prejudice.” She and her friends pride themselves on being part of a community united not by background but by intellectual curiosity and a desire to make a difference, but it is not always possible to block out the rest of the world. In a sleepy New England town where the crime rate is low and the racial makeup is overwhelmingly white, students of color can feel ill at ease walking into town alone for fear of being verbally assaulted by passing motorists or profiled by store owners.

The Academy community itself is not immune from prejudice either, as Syed found out. When she encountered hurtful opinions on a campus-wide social media page, it was distressing to her. Initially, she ”felt like screaming,” but says she has learned to welcome debates since then: ”I get more experiences and I grow from them.” In her upbeat way, Syed is learning not to let negative comments or emotions get the best of her. ”I like to ask myself what could happen if I went about it in another way. Maybe I could teach them,” she says.

Putting a positive spin on things makes Syed feel empowered. ”Just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and imagining what can happen, makes me see I do have something to work for,” she says. But whether in the form of inappropriate attempts at humor, the sharp sting of unrecognized privilege or wounding racial slurs, instances of stereotyping and intolerance are painful. Not everyone can turn them into teaching moments as Syed tries to do — and they shouldn’t have to.

The Academy community is working to raise awareness both internally and externally through partnerships with local church and community leaders and on-campus initiatives led by faculty, staff and quite often, students. Recent collaborations include a walk for racial unity and a ”One Town One Book” reading series that kicked off with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Last May, the Office of Multicultural Affairs created the Council for Social Justice and Equity. In December, concerned faculty members organized a special assembly to address the impact of America’s growing anti-Muslim sentiment on the Academy community. Another feature in this issue, ”Finding Voice, Taking Action,” on page 26, highlights a new experiential learning trip that occurred in November in Montgomery, Alabama, which focused on social justice issues like mass incarceration.

No single initiative is a cure-all or a quick fix, but taken together they are part of the ongoing work needed to achieve a more inclusive environment. The hope is that, as individuals begin to initiate positive changes in small ways, they will have a ripple effect both within and beyond the boundaries of the Academy.

Syed’s passion for justice has her making plans to start a new club at Exeter that would build on the work of groups like the Afro-Latino Exonians Society or Gay/ Straight Alliance but focus on ”minorities as a whole.” She explains that many students have overlapping, or intersecting, identities and can face oppression in a variety of ways. On occasion, she has seen friends from different groups being disrespectful or dismissive of one another. ”I want to educate my peers about institutionalized racism and help build empathy among all the groups so that [we] can better fight oppression in America.”

In the midst of the afternoon crowd at Grill on a gray day in November, Syed pauses in mid-conversation and states brightly, ”Whatever you are, be a good one.” Attributing the words to ”Abe” Lincoln, she adds, ”I always wanted to embody that.”