Here's how this nonprofit gets hundreds of high school and college students excited about their futures - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 26, 2016 11:25 am

Here’s how this nonprofit gets hundreds of high school and college students excited about their futures

Philadelphia Futures' annual conference offered a glimpse into how it keeps its students on track for academic success.

Conference attendees raise their "Be Your Best Self" resolutions.

Courtesy photo

It’s 9:07 a.m. on a Saturday, and about 500 high school and college kids are hype.

In the auditorium of Drexel University’s Main Building, Dr. James Pawelski of the University of Pennsylvania is giving a lecture on positive psychology — only, it doesn’t look like a typical university lecture. On the presentation screen behind him, Pawelski has displayed two pictures of himself: One is wearing a red cape, one a green cape. The red-cape superhero version, he explains, stops the bad things in the world; the green-cape version grows good things. It’s a little goofy, perhaps purposefully so. 

But those in the audience are engaged, for the most part — which seems remarkable, given the time. And they actually seem to be interested. Their hands shoot up when Pawelski has them choose whether they’d prefer to be a red-cape superhero or a green-cape superhero. The room is divided, and when he asks them to tell their neighbors why they chose what they did, two girls sitting behind me explain that they’d rather grow good things because those will overtake the bad things eventually.

Pawelski explains later that the capes represent your outlook on the world: You’re either looking for problems, or you’re looking for solutions. Both sides are needed to solve problems. We need reversible capes.

The early-January scene is taking place at the 26th annual conference of Center City-based nonprofit Philadelphia Futures, which aims to provide low-income and disadvantaged students with the tools to get into and succeed in college. Throughout the day, they’ll encounter presentations, breakout sessions and live entertainment all centered around the theme “Be Your Best Self.”

The point of the conference is to convene the hundreds of students, from ninth grade through senior year of college, who participate in Philadelphia Futures’ two college preparedness programs every year. “Sponsor-A-Scholar” pairs public high school-attending freshmen with adult mentors and provides academic enrichment throughout every year of high school, as well as support through college. “College Connection” serves students attending public, charter and parochial high schools starting in 11th grade by providing personalized college guidance as the students enter the college application process.

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Sponsor-A-Scholar just celebrated 25 years; College Connection graduated its first high school class last year. Both programs serve disadvantaged Philadelphia youths who would be first-generation college students.

The conference, and the programs it celebrated, raised a big question: How do you keep a mass of teens engaged for not only a morning, but for up to eight years of an academic-focused program?

Philadelphia Futures cape

Dr. James Pawelski describes the red-cape, green-cape dynamic. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Initial credit for doing so isn’t deserved by Philadelphia Futures: The kids have to want to go to college in the first place before they join the organization.

“To be in Philadelphia Futures, you really have to be committed to your own success, because we require so much of students,” says Executive Director Joan Mazzotti after the opening session. “It takes a student who really has a vision for their future and a commitment to get themselves there.”

The application process alone is intense: a pages-long application, interviews, meetings with parents. (Sponsor-A-Scholar student Taahir Mundy, now a freshman at La Salle University, tells me later that Philadelphia Futures stood out to him when he was looking for college preparedness programs to join “because the paperwork was so thick. I was like, ‘OK, if I have to fill out all this, it must be legit.’”)

"It takes a student who really has a vision for their future and a commitment to get themselves there."
Joan Mazzotti

Then, the program itself is intense, too: Kids need to commit to summer programming, after-school meetings, college visits over spring break. They must take SAT prep and classes about the financial aid process.

The extra classes, the trips — those really aren’t deterrents to participation for a bunch of high schoolers?

But just as Pawelski took the lofty concept of positive psychology and made it digestible, Philadelphia Futures breaks down the college preparation process into manageable steps.

“They’re teenagers,” Mazzotti admits. “It [takes] a lot of encouragement, and enthusiasm of the staff is infectious, and we try to make all of the work that they have to do be fun and interesting and recognizably connected to their future.”

“From the outside looking in, it can look like a bit much to do, but to me, it’s all worth it,” Mundy says. “They break it down so simple. You really can’t fail.”

The spacing of Philadelphia Futures’ instruction over the years of high school makes it manageable, he explains. Lessons like how to use commas correctly or how to act in a classroom are taught in tandem with other, bigger lessons — like how to write a thesis or apply for financial aid. They’re lessons the students might not have heard otherwise.

“In public school, I don’t learn those things, so I would have been at a disadvantage, had I not taken advantage of the opportunity” to join Philadelphia Futures, Mundy says. “And then, by me [participating in] the programs that we do every summer, I was basically prepared for college.”

Philadelphia Futures selfie

Philadelphia Futures students take selfies of their 2016 resolutions. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Back in the auditorium, Pawelski’s presentation ends with whooping cheers. The next is one about the “Wellness Wheel,” a graphic describing the five facets of being one’s best self: physical, social, emotional, financial and academic. A slideshow with pictures of Philadelphia Futures staff embracing those facets — such as Communications Director Holly Mantle posing with her infant son after setting him up with a bank account — garners laughs and “Awws” from the students.

The students are then asked to write their wheel-related goals for the year and take selfies with their papers, using the hashtag #PFBeYourBestSelfie.” As the rush of chattering escalates, they also pose for a group picture, waving their resolutions proudly.

After the opening session, the students move on to grade-designated activities. Freshman in the Sponsor-A-Scholar program, for instance, are “speed networking” — running amongst themselves with the goal of meeting as many people as possible in just a few minutes. They are prompted to ask get-to-know-you-questions — everything from  “Why do you think college is important?” to “What is the meaning of life?” to “Who’s your favorite musical artist?” (“Drake!” several shout, to laughs.)

The juniors’ session is far more reserved, taking place in a lecture hall and covering the topic “Planning for Your Future.” Philadelphia Futures staff describe the next year’s timeline of programming — everything from dates by which students must register for the SAT to a parent dinner in May.

This is where I catch up with the two girls who had been sitting behind me during the morning presentations, Sharon Matesun, 17, and Oyindamola Adetola, 16. Both are juniors are First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School; they applied for College Connections after finding a pamphlet about the program in their school’s library.

Because they’ll be the first in their families to attend college, they appreciate that Philadelphia Futures helps them understand what to expect there.

“They realize that most people around the Philadelphia region don’t really have anybody to guide them,” Adetola said. “Being here, it gets me excited, gives me more insight on how [college] is going to be.”

While Matesun had already planned to attend college before entering College Connection, she said she has grown even more excited to do so because of the program’s preparation.

“I feel like I don’t even want to go through high school, I just want to go straight to college,” she said, “with the extracurricular activities I can join, studying abroad and getting myself involved in those rigorous courses that will get me to where I want to be in life and what I want to do in the future.”

Philadelphia Futures freshmen

Freshmen participate in “speed networking” led by an adult. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

One of the last sessions of the conference is lunch, and the Main Building is again buzzing with activity. Qiaoyi Hou, a freshman at Penn State University, is sitting with Jaime Zeng Zhu, a freshman at Arcadia University, on the grand staircase, eating and chatting.

Both participated in the inaugural College Connection class. There’s a community within the program, Hou says: The conference “is nice because, before, we used to have this after school class with students from different high schools, and now we go to different colleges. It’s good to see them all back together and share the experience.”

I ask them what they learned in their breakout session.

“I learned from our session that 98 percent of the things that we do are our responsibility,” Zeng Zhu says. “So, out of 100 percent, one percent is parents, one percent is teachers and then 98 percent is us. What we do, what we learn and how we learn is all 98 percent us.”

About the lesson of the green-cape, red-cape superhero taught during Pawelski’s talk, Hou says, “I think it’s better to use both sides and not just focus on one side.”

And what about Philadelphia Futures overall — it is a red-cape superhero or a green-cape superhero?

When I ask Mazzotti, she considers for a moment.

“We try every day to fight against the inequities in education,” she says. “But, on the other hand, we bring the tools, resources, that students need to flourish. So, I think we are clearly both.” 

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