VOL. 131 | NO. 31 | Friday, February 12, 2016
The Tipping Point
By John Klyce Minervini
Going to Harvard is a big deal no matter who you are. But going to Harvard when you’re a poor kid from Cameroon? That’s a home run. That’s what Gabriel Fotsing did. He grew up in Douala, moved to Houston and taught himself how to apply to college.
Now he’s paying it forward. He’s the founder and CEO of The College Initiative, a Memphis nonprofit that helps underserved high schoolers find the right college, get accepted, get a scholarship and succeed when they arrive.
“I came to the United States, and it gave me so much,” Fotsing said. “Now I feel the obligation of giving back. This is one place where I can really make a difference.”
It all started in Fotsing’s sophomore year of high school, when he had a “sobering conversation” with his parents. As African immigrants, they had no idea how to navigate the American college admissions process, and they couldn’t afford to pay their son’s tuition. Stuck for ideas, Fotsing went to the public library and started checking out books.
Three years later, he had been admitted to 10 of the nation’s top colleges, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale. That’s when he realized: He wasn’t the only one confronting this problem. In fact, there were millions of underserved high schoolers around the country, each struggling with a college admissions process that could be stressful and dizzyingly complex.
“In many cases, these students have no path to success,” Fotsing said. “They have no guidance counselors. Having someone to walk you through the process makes all the difference in the world.”
At Harvard, more than 60 percent of Fotsing’s graduating class went on to lucrative careers in finance or consulting. He very nearly followed the herd, but then he met a recruiter from Teach for America, a nonprofit that sends recent college grads to teach in under-resourced public schools around the country. He says the idea wouldn’t let him go.
“I wanted a radically new experience,” Fotsing remembers. “I had to figure out my own path, and Teach for America came along at just the right moment.”
Before he knew it, he was teaching AP Biology to a class of 11th and 12th graders in Mariana, Arkansas. He chose the Mississippi Delta because he believed he could have the biggest impact there. It’s also where he incubated and launched his nonprofit, The College Initiative. (The nonprofit formally relocated to Memphis in 2014.)
Why is this work so important? It’s a story of three statistics. By the year 2020, 68 percent of U.S. jobs will require a college degree. Currently, only 52 percent of America’s low-income children enroll in college after high school. Of those, just 8 percent go on to graduate. Fotsing says those numbers need to change.
“That’s what happens when you don’t have options,” he said. “In many cases, people turn to illegitimate ways of making money, and that puts them in the prison pipeline. We’re trying to stop that cycle before it starts.”
Memphis high schoolers start working with The College Initiative in their junior year. They meet weekly with staff members in groups of about 15, where they prepare for standardized tests, find the right schools to apply to, hone their college essays and identify possible scholarships. Currently the initiative works with about 1,000 students in 18 schools around the Mid-South.
Here’s the good news: it’s working. So far, 100 percent of The College Initiative’s high school graduates have gone on to attend four-year college – including prestigious schools like Harvard, Stanford and Washington University in St. Louis. But Fotsing says there’s no time to get complacent. The need is simply too great.
“We are all on this planet together,” he asserts. “We are each other’s keepers, and we have a responsibility to help those we are capable of helping.”
Gabriel Fotsing is a New Memphis Fellow pushing our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.