A program that mentors and educates low-income, black, and Latino youth with the goal of helping them earn degrees at top universities has achieved a first at placing one of their students at the prestigious Ivy League Yale University.
Naheem Watson was among 45 curious, talented and stand-out students who participated in TeenSHARP‘s 2020 College Signing Day on Wednesday. Families and supporters up and down the state dialed in for the program where students proudly announced their college decisions.
Though his choice to attend Yale wasn’t a surprise – the Mount Pleasant senior heard the good news in December – it was still a remarkable achievement worth noting at yesterday’s ceremony.
“Yale University — the first TeenSharpee to go to Yale University,” said TeenSHARP co-founder Tatiana Poladko. “Watch out Connecticut!”
One of the most selective schools in the country, Yale reviewed 35,220 applications this year. Naheem is among the 6.5% who were offered a spot in the class of 2024. And they offered the Mount Pleasant grad a tuition-free package — most of his fees for books, housing and meals will also be covered by the school.
Naheem’s two older siblings graduated from Brandywine High School. But Naheem chose to attend Mount Pleasant because of its rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
“I just really wanted a challenging curriculum because I knew I wanted to go to one of the top colleges. I knew I had to challenge myself, I had to push myself. And Mount Pleasant seemed like the place for me,” he said.
Yale costs almost $79,000 a year, and Naheem will be attending for free.
TeenSHARP works vigorously with colleges to ensure that little to no cost of tuition will be absorbed by its applicants. Naheem has been with the program since 9th grade, spending nearly every Saturday during the academic year at the University of Delaware taking part in the hours-long college-readiness program.
At yesterday’s ceremony, Poladako said, “Naheem has done so much. I remember, starting to practice for interviews for colleges with Naheem. And the question, ‘Tell me about yourself?’ would result in a 20-minute response. He has truly tried out for and has taken such advantage of so many opportunities that were available to him. But he also created new ones,” she said.
Naheem, who graduated with a 4.57 cumulative GPA, was a member of the Youth Advocacy Council with Delaware CAN. He participated in Mount Pleasant’s mock trial team, tennis and math league. He traveled to Jeonju, South Korea with the National Strategic Language Initiative for Youth in the summer before his junior year. And he spent six weeks studying race and ethnicity on University of Michigan’s campus as a Telluride Scholar, which is a nationally competitive program. TeenSHARP also helped Naheem delivered his first TEDx Talk.
Naheem had no idea when he opened his admissions letter whether it would be good news. His mom, along with mentors from TeenSHARP, were on hand as he clicked on the email.
Founded in 2009, TeenSHARP increases underrepresented students’ access to college by developing student-leaders who are Successful, High-Achieving, and Reaching Potential (SHARP). Since then, TeenSHARP has evolved into an organization that gives low-income, black, and Latino youth access to leadership opportunities, trains them to be ambassadors of higher education in their communities and prepares them for success at selective colleges and universities.
“We started TeenSHARP with the belief that the leadership of this country should look like the population in this country. Our society needs to be most welcoming to everybody,” said Poladko at yesterday’s public event.
Poladako says the program now serves kids from every high school in the state. “This has been a revolutionary journey providing access for our students and cultivating a pipeline of diverse, talented, highly credentialed individuals,” she said.
TeenSHARP scholars spend every Saturday in the school year taking college courses in humanities and social sciences taught by college professors from Temple, University of Delaware and other schools. Poladako says of the intensity of the program, “We call it school after school or living a double life.”
Their students get to see a lot of college campuses, engaging with at least 30 top colleges through campus visits or meetings with admissions officers. Naheem personally visited 20 colleges in three years – all paid for by TeeenSHARP.
The program has a strong list of supporters, including the Laffey-McHugh Foundation, Longwood Foundation, Welfare Foundation, CSC and the Chichester DuPont Foundation. Their list of individual donors numbers in the hundreds.
Scholars receive at least 20 hours of academic and college advising every year that they are in the program, and they read and learn about the rich intellectual legacy of their communities.
“We try to eliminate barriers for our scholars every single step of the way. Our philosophy is not a philosophy of deficiency but rather of greatness. We have very high expectations of our scholars because we know that they can,” said Poladako.
Naheem has come a long way since his days in elementary school, when he says he was always fighting and was labeled the typical “bad student.”
He said, “I always thought as a little kid I would end up in jail, as a lot of men in my community had gone to jail. I thought there was really nothing I could do to change that fact.”
In his college essay Naheem wrote:
“As a young Black boy, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, a city labeled as Murdertown USA and ranked number one in teen shootings, I needed to know that a hero could come from a city like mine.”
“I woke up excited to spend yet another weekend at my dad’s house. It was there where my Beyblades, plastic swords, and other toys I used for my imaginary adventures resided. Once I arrived, however, I found myself in the middle of an unexpected scene, one that told a story of a nightmare, and not of an invincible hero. In the house there were couch cushions thrown everywhere, the plants knocked over, my sleeping area trashed, and many of my precious toys thrown around and broken. I later learned that the police raided my house for drugs. My father was arrested and sentenced to four years in a maximum-security prison. At that moment, I felt my imaginative spirit slip away.”
Naheem visited his father for the three+ years he was in prison. His father has been out of jail since the fall of Naheem’s sophomore year, and his dad has been a big part of his life ever since.
Naheem ended that college essay on an up note, taking in the many influences of his life and remaining hopeful about the future. “I gradually have come to understand that you’re not defined by your background and that you can change your trajectory of life no matter how messed up it was in the past,” he said. “I took all of these lessons that I’ve learned to see a greater picture and the whole situation. And now I use this information to better myself and my community.”
And just how excited is Naheem to be attending the college of his dreams? “I’m still in a state of shock. Sometimes it still doesn’t seem real that I got in. And I don’t think I will really feel how real it is until I land on the campus of Yale in August,” he said.