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First-Generation College Grad Helps University of Florida Students Reach for Success

Growing up, Cherrelle “Elle” Collins dreamed of going to college like she saw on TV. She also wanted a career that would help people. Now as a first-generation college graduate, she’s living out her dream—empowering historically low-income, first-gen students at the University of Florida to reach for success like she did.

As director of the nationally recognized Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars (MFOS) Program—which JSF helps support through a matching grant—Collins works hard to ensure each student receives individualized attention and mentoring as they experience college life.

But without her own mentors guiding her along the way, she may not have pursued helping others through access work. 

Collins shares that her childhood was a mix of challenges and aspirations.

“College wasn’t something we talked about around the dinner table or dreamed about at a young age,” she explains. “I always felt inspiration from people who look like me on TV—series like The Cosby Show and how those people navigated college with success. That sparked this idea of college, and it took root in my mind as a possibility.” 

Thankfully, Collins had an army of mentors and educators supporting her during her elementary and teenage years. 

“I think about my fifth-grade English teacher and my cheer and dance coaches, who told me they saw potential in me,” she says.

As high school graduation neared, Collins and her mother began having serious conversations about her future. 

That got Collins thinking: Who did she want to be? She knew she wanted to go to college, but believed her educational outcomes needed to outweigh the cost of tuition. So, Collins focused on surgical technology, beginning her higher education journey at Niagara County Community College, outside of Buffalo, New York. In 2012, she received her associate’s degree before attending the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) as a nursing major.

But along the way, conversations with UB administrators and professors stirred something more in Collins.

“They helped me see my potential,” she recalls. “I thought there was only one way out—I had to [study] medicine or engineering to save my family from poverty. I recognized through those mentors that I could lean into what I was passionate about. And I wanted to be in a helping profession.”

Elle Collins at University of Florida. Photo courtesy of UF Student Life, by Matt August.

These fruitful discussions helped Collins realize she could help students with stories similar to hers. So, she switched her major to health and human services and graduated in 2014. She then pursued a master’s degree in higher education administration at UB. 

During that time, she also served as assistant director for college success initiatives at Say Yes Buffalo, which helps remove educational and employment barriers for students in area public and charter schools. While there, she helped open college success centers in over 20 high schools. 

It was the start of her dream career.

Sadly, something tragic happened in her first year of grad school. Collins lost her mother. 

“Everything reminded me of what I was going through,” she shares. “My mom, who was a woman of faith, always instilled this idea that you can run from something or you can run to something. You can sit in the pain and the grief—or use it to fuel your next thing.” 

Collins took that advice to heart, determined to start a new chapter. She began job searching in the spring of 2016, just before graduation.

“I didn’t see myself in New York anymore—I thought being home would help me get through grief, but I realized I needed to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says. “I widened my search and started to look for other places that could give me something different.”

Collins searched with a specific idea in mind: the chance to work at a big university. 

“I wanted the sports, the bands, Greek life—those things my smaller schools up north didn’t have,” she explains. “As I went through the interview process at the University of Florida, [it felt] conversational. I could be myself. As I walked around, it gave me the feeling of what I saw growing up—what I thought college was like.”

In the fall of 2016, she moved from New York to Gainesville after accepting a housing and residence life position at UF. Less than nine months into her position, she was promoted from resident director to area coordinator. 

However, it didn’t take long before Collins told her supervisor that she was interested in transitioning into access and community work at the university. She was introduced to Dr. Leslie Pendleton, the senior director of the MFOS Program at the time. Collins says the program, a full financial need scholarship that assists historically low-income first-generation college students pursue education at UF, reminded her of a first-generation scholarship she received while at UB.

“I was encouraged to collaborate with and learn from her,” says Collins, who joined the MFOS team as director in 2022.

She says her work with Say Yes Buffalo and UF housing uniquely prepared her for her current role.

“They allowed me to hone in on leadership, communications skills, problem-solving, and strategic thinking,” she shares. “I understood not every Gator had the same experience, and we need to take an individualized approach. Housing is crisis management, it’s 24/7! I lived where I worked—so there was a deeper understanding of student needs.”

She describes her MFOS role as dynamic and fulfilling, especially when meeting with students, staff, and faculty or collaborating on new initiatives that enhance students’ experiences.

“Not every program will fit the needs of every student, so I want us to think deeply about enhancing that experience. What do first-year students need? They need help with transitions, [knowing] how to study the curriculum as a college student, and building community. Second-year students need help with their major declaration and doing more through leadership or service on campus. And the third- and fourth-year students are [navigating] that transition out.”

Each year, the MFOS Program serves over 1,600 individuals. The network is composed of about 6,000 students, including alumni and current students.

She believes the program is successful because of the approach to tailored support and a team of people with unwavering dedication to student success.

For Collins, working in the department is also a full-circle moment. 

“It’s an honor to give back and speak to the little version of myself,” she explains. “I see myself represented in many of the students’ stories, so giving back to a program that has played a similar role [in my life] is unexplainable.”

Her advice to Machen scholars? Believe in yourself, never underestimate the power of your dreams, and own your story. 

“I remember a time when I wasn’t always proud of [my story],” she says. “I believe that for many students who identify as first-generation or limited income, there can be a lot of shame associated with their journeys. Shame about leaving home, shame about not knowing all the answers, shame about upbringing. I believe there is power in owning our stories and sharing them more broadly to impact and change the trajectories of communities, systems, and structures.”

One Man, One Little School, One Big Dream

This article was originally published on Sept. 15, 2023 by John W. Fountain, Providence St. Mel School class of 1978 alum, as a birthday tribute to the school’s founder, Paul J. Adams III. It is shared here with permission.

A photo of the Providence St. Mel School gym, which has the words "We Believe" painted on the brick.

Two words emblazoned across the wall of the gym at Providence St. Mel embody the school’s spirit, “We Believe.” Photo by John Fountain.

Grass, emerald-green, lush and alive. Proud blades that point toward the sky. Perfectly manicured, this grass glistens beneath the sun. That was nearly 45 years ago.

And yet, for as far as I could see the other morning, standing outside the yellowish-brick castle in the 100 block of South Central Park Avenue on Chicago’s West Side, the grass still shimmers in the wind and golden sunlight—a simple symbol of promise, pride and hope, more than four decades since I first laid my eyes on it.

I don’t recall exactly the first time I saw the lawn outside Providence St. Mel, or Paul J. Adams, III—the man responsible. It must have been sometime in 1974—back when Afros and bell-bottom pants were signs of the times and the struggle to lay hold on the American dream still seemed ever elusive for Blacks in America, and we were singing James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” What I do recall clearly is the notion that grass wouldn’t—couldn’t—grow on the West Side: too poor, too ghetto, too far from the fertile soil from which sprouts the stuff of American dreams.

Back then, in neighborhoods like Chicago’s impoverished K-Town, where I grew up and had been dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as part of America’s permanent underclass, the “American Millstone,” there was plenty of evidence to suggest that might be the case: broken glass, bald lawns and vacant lots, blight, poverty and despair that flowed like a river of hopelessness.

Back then, I remember the sprinklers outside Providence, the crystal spray that doused Mr. Adams’ lawn endlessly. How, as a high school freshman, I quickly learned one of his most important rules: Don’t step on the grass, or else pay a fine.

To some, it might have seemed ridiculous or severe to impose a penalty for something so infinitesimal. It might also have seemed difficult to fathom how something as simple as grass might be proof enough that some things others deem impossible—with a little planting, watering and vision—might indeed become possible.

Paul J. Adams III at JSF's Chicago reception for grantee partners in September 2023. He is wearing a black suit and has short, dark curly hair and a goatee.

Paul J. Adams III at JSF’s Chicago reception for grantee partners in September 2023.

As a poor kid whose father had deserted me by the time I was 4, I was the kind who, like many children from similar backgrounds today, was written off by researchers, given my demographics of having been born Black and poor, and raised in the urban ghetto—hopelessly predestined to an unalterable mortal existence, never to rise. Without my mother’s decision and sacrifice in 1974 to send me to Providence St. Mel, which set me on a different path than so many of my childhood friends, I might have succumbed to the death of dreams that eventually entombs those dreams too long deferred. Maybe not.

This much is not debatable: That for more than four decades, Paul Adams and Providence St. Mel has helped lead poor Chicago children to the Promised Land of educational success and that since 1978 every one of the school’s graduates has been admitted to a college or university.

This much is also clear these days:

That for at least the last 45 years, the Chicago Public School system has largely wandered in the wilderness of “miseducation” and still has yet to fully cross the sea of red-tape bureaucracy occupied by a union that often seems more concerned for teachers than students, and by bureaucrats who, by their failure to fix the system after all this time, leave me wondering whether they ever really want to.

At 13, I saw Paul Adams as a lion of a man, his proud woolen Afro as his mane, and every square inch of Providence, including every blade of grass, as his domain. More importantly, I found inside the school’s walls a safe-haven from the perilous streets of my neighborhood. I found educational opportunity and the expectation of success. I found through one man’s vision sufficiency to dream. In Adams, I saw a Black man filled to the brim with integrity, character and commitment. An unyielding Black man who was not only willing to stand for the education and future of Black children, but also willing to fight, even to give his life for our good.

He turns 83 today.

‘Last Dollar Aid’ Helps Students Cross the Graduation Finish Line

Nativity Prep’s Last Dollar Aid Program has continued to be made possible by the generosity of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. The Last Dollar Aid program provides tuition assistance to alumni in college who face gaps in scholarships and expected family contributions. Since its inception, Last Dollar Aid has an incredible impact with a 94 percent graduation rate, far higher than the national average for similar demographics.

Each year the Graduate Support team works extensively with alumni who are seniors in high school and in college to support them in a variety of ways. Alumni who are entering into and enrolled in college can apply to the Last Dollar Aid Program. If accepted, they must maintain a set GPA, be in regular contact with our Graduate Support team, and attend at least two Nativity events per year.

Here are some highlights of two Last Dollar Aid recipients:

Allen is a current senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has taken advantage of much of what UMass has to offer. He shared that Last Dollar Aid helped make it possible for him to take part in an amazing opportunity – Recalc Academy’s Finance Accelerator program, a 7-week program for students from diverse backgrounds to receive expert training on skills needed for banking, consulting, and private equity. Allen is exploring his options in the finance world and recently landed a job offer at UBS.

Isaiah is a recent graduate of Framingham State University where he studied finance. Isaiah returned to work with the Advancement Team at Nativity before landing a job at JLL, a real estate and investment management firm.  For Isaiah, the importance of Last Dollar Aid was not only financial but kept him in touch with Nativity for support to persist in college.

As we continue to empower and support boys from Boston in pursuing elite high school and college educations, we are grateful for the incredible support from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.


Brittany Yapp is Associate Director of Annual Fund and Communications at Nativity Preparatory School.

 

Promise and Transformation

Nativity Preparatory School of Boston recently hosted its inaugural Nativity Promise Dinner with the theme of “Our Promise. Their Future. Your Impact.” The event convened Nativity’s committed benefactors, supporters and allies for an evening dedicated to the idea of the “Nativity Promise.” To set the scene for the evening, Nativity released a new video featuring students, alumni and staff describing the life-long impact of the Nativity Promise.

At Nativity, we believe that all children deserve an education that opens doors and provides the foundation to thrive. For many young men of color from low-income families, society falls short. We’ve made a promise to them and their families.

Our Promise: We promise to always believe in and invest in the incredible potential of boys from low-income Boston communities to become successful, compassionate “men for others” through the opportunity of education.

Their Future: Empowered by a high-quality, full-scholarship Jesuit education and resourced by an extensive Graduate Support program, our alumni thrive in school, career, and service to their families, communities, businesses, and the world.

Your Opportunity for Impact: The generous and dedicated support of organizations like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation helps fulfill this promise and has a transformative impact on the lives of these young men.

Kevin Sullivan is the Assistant Director of Advancement at Nativity Prep Boston. With a background in communications, his work focuses on sharing stories about Jesuit education’s mission to increase equity and access.

Health Events Among Highlights of African Heritage Month at Dalhousie

In 1988, Nova Scotia first recognized Black History Month. Thirty years later the tradition continues with African Heritage Month being recognized and celebrated in communities, by organizations and in our postsecondary institutions across the province.

Flag raising Dalhousie 2018

Photos: Dalhousie University

On Feb. 1, Dalhousie University launched a month of events with the raising of the Pan-African (or Marcus Garvey) flag to reflect and honour this year’s theme of “BLACK EXCELLENCE: COMMUNITY TO ACADEMIA.”

Promoting Leadership in health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) was recognized for its dedication and contribution to the success of Black students in health, among other pioneering pathway programs such as Dalhousie’s Transition Year Program, Indigenous Black & Mi’kmaq Initiative (in law school), Black Educators Association’s Math Camp and Imhotep’s Legacy Academy.

Woman sitting in a chair in front of bannerIn keeping with the theme of Black Excellence, PLANS joined the Africentric Learning Institute and the Health Association of African Canadians in welcoming Dr. Clotilda Yakimchuk to share her story to the community and aspiring nurses as one of Nova Scotia’s first Black nurses.

Dr. Yakimchuk shared stories of her journey – from failing grade seven and taking that as a lesson to work hard, facing racism and standing strong as patients refused to be cared by a Black woman, and being elected the first Black president of the Registered Nurses Association in Nova Scotia in its 100-year history.  During her training, Dr. Yakimchuk did not see many others that looked like her, but was pleased to hear that more students of African descent are considering the nursing profession – one she enjoyed very much.  It was a pleasure to sit with Dr. Yakimchuk and she is an inspiration to all.

To close the month, PLANS is supporting Black health events with the student-led groups: Atlantic Association of Aspiring Black Physicians, Community of Black Students in Nursing, and Health Association of African Canadian-Student Organization as they aim to educate, build community and strive for excellence within themselves.

Students at Dalhousie summer campPLANS is now recruiting youth for its summer programming which has grown with support from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. In its fifth year, the African Nova Scotian Health Science Summer Camp will see students from across Nova Scotia learn more about postsecondary options, health careers and meet new friends as the camps are held at three Nova Scotian universities.

Michelle Patrick is the program manager for Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) – supporting people of African descent on their journey to education and a career in health. Her favorite PLANS program is the African Nova Scotian Health Science Summer Camp that has expanded to more institutions across Nova Scotia and is reaching an increasing number of youth. She is a community volunteer with the Health Association of African Canadians and the Community Health Board.

Civil Rights Legacy Shapes Mission at Providence St. Mel

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved into an apartment in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood — less than a mile from where Providence St. Mel stands — to protest housing inequality, segregation and poverty in this embattled community. A few short years later, Paul J. Adams III, the founder of Providence St. Mel School, moved from Alabama to that same neighborhood in Chicago to make a difference. Mr. Adams shares that his life’s work and the mission of Providence St. Mel are inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

Photo of students at Providence St. MelMr. Adams remembers how Dr. King impacted his path as a young man. “In 1955, I met Dr. King. That same year Emmett Till was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi, and Rosa Parks sat down on a bus. At that time, I was the same age as Emmett Till. I remember walking home and feeling the sweat run down my hand thinking that could have been me fished out of that river. The events of that year shaped my life. They set me on my road to whatever I was going to do. There is not a day I wake up that I don’t think about Emmett Till.”

Many of the societal woes that Dr. King protested still strangle this west side Chicago community, yet Providence St. Mel remains a beacon of hope. Since 1978, 100 percent of our students have graduated from high school and have been accepted into four-year colleges and universities. Many students begin their time at Providence St. Mel with significant academic deficits and personal obstacles, but we know that when given high expectations, support and proper instruction, all students can achieve.

Adams on playgroundOur mission is shaped by the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the drive to challenge young people to reach their full potential. Mr. Adams notes, “Without a proper education, a person is doomed.  If we can provide the right environment, our children will enter these doors and feel free to learn and prosper.”

During his more than 40 years impacting the west side Chicago community, Mr. Adams has received countless awards and recognition for his work improving the community. Most recently, on Feb. 13, he received The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award from The Leaders Network, a collaboration of clergy and community stakeholders in Chicago.

The mission statement of Providence St. Mel that students recite each morning states, “we believe in the creation of inspired lives produced by the miracle of hard work” and “we believe one must earn the right to dream.” The determined students at Providence St. Mel understand that the dreams of the Civil Rights movement must come through determination, hard work and education.

Senior Jalen F.Students recognize the connections between the school’s mission and the importance of honoring Black History by investing in black futures.

“Our school’s mission statement is essentially what Black History means to me,” shares senior Jalen F. “Every morning is a reminder to look at ourselves when we commit to ‘take this place, this time and this people and make a better place, better time and better people. You can’t say those words and not think of our ancestors’ sacrifices.”

Walking the ‘Last Mile’ Through Graduate Support

Providing low-income, minority boys from Boston with the rigorous, affordable education that they deserve is part of our daily work at Nativity Preparatory School.

However, we see — as do the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and many in the education world —  the serious need to help bridge “the last mile” for disadvantaged students. Progress in this area continues, but it must have the end goal in mind. We should applaud a test score improvement in our middle schools, but what if that doesn’t translate to high school success? We should celebrate a formerly-struggling student’s college acceptance, but what if they can’t afford to ever complete a degree?

Young students raising their hands in classAt Nativity Prep — profiled by JSF President and CEO Malcolm Macleod in a post titled “Small, but Mighty” — a crucial part of our vision and model is bridging that “last mile” through investing in graduate support.

Staffed by two full-time professionals, our Graduate Support Office (GSO) offers targeted resources and programming to ensure that the academic growth, character formation and call to service of our graduating students is supported and encouraged through high school, college and beyond. Our results so far have been a 99 percent high school graduation rate, 84 percent college enrollment rate, and 64 percent college graduation rate, but we know that collaboration with others and sharing best practices can help us all do even better.

Here’s what our program looks like:

Academic: Going from our small, structured and supportive environment to elite, academically-challenging independent schools is a big transition. The GSO provides regular tutoring sessions and academic advising to our high school and college alumni. Each April, roughly 50 percent of each high school junior class takes advantage of our free college visit tour of top regional schools.

Two young men standing in front of a treeFinancial: Despite working with high schools and colleges to get the best financial aid for our graduates, gaps as small as a few hundred dollars can be insurmountable for some families. Our Last Dollar Aid program fills those gaps, while a partnership with Nebraska Book Company, Inc. helps ensure that steep textbook costs don’t get in the way of academic success.

Social: Social transitions can also be difficult when minority students are so underrepresented in independent and higher education. Nativity Prep is always an open and safe space for our alumni, many of whom can be found visiting teachers and old friends each day. The GSO regularly checks in and visits with students to provide mentorship, remind them of available resources and let them know that the Nativity community is there for them. Connecting graduating 8th graders or high schoolers with other Nativity alumni at their new schools often provides a friendly face in a new environment.

Career: Tapping into our generous circle of supporters, Board members and volunteers in Boston, we regularly offer internship opportunities and networking connections for alumni to explore career options. Social capital can often be just as valuable as “educational capital.

Three men hugging each otherAlumni Engagement: At the end of the day, our alumni are brothers for life. We make sure we provide regular opportunities for alumni to gather, share challenges and celebrate one other!

As students move through primary, secondary and higher education, one educational institution can never provide all of the support and answers. Investing in graduate support and building a life-long community is our way of walking with them on the “last mile” of their educational journey.

Summer Youth Program Empowers Students to Confront Important Social Justice Issues

City Music, Berklee’s youth development and outreach program, delivers tuition-free, high-quality contemporary music education to young people in grades 4-12 who are from underserved communities.

Man singing at berklee city music social justice

This summer, City Music students used creativity to tackle social justice issues. JSF has been a supporter of this program. Photos by Mike Spencer.

During this past summer, City Music brought together 15 at-risk teens, who were referred by the City of Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, for a summer of learning and self-actualization. These students, most of whom were new to music and the program, were tasked with exploring prevalent social justice issues through small group discussions, activities for connecting, sharing and self-reflection, and research. Students chose topics they felt were important and formed groups around those issues. Former City Music students, now Berklee college students, facilitated the groups.

At the end of the summer, the young people performed onstage before an audience of peers, as well as adults. They used their original music, spoken word performances and song arrangements to express their personal stories and experiences on prejudice, racism (structural oppression), body image, bullying and peer pressure. After each presentation, the audience was asked thoughtful questions to prompt discussion.

Woman holding a sign reading "if you aren't angry you aren't paying attention"What had transpired between the first day and the last was amazing. On the outset, some students were quick to react—to anyone’s words, a situation or in discussion. Some students preferred talking over listening (and vice-versa). However, as students began researching the social justice issues using the iceberg model (M. Goodman, 2002), they began to see how they could use this same analysis to everyday things.

This systematic approach teaches students to go beyond the “tip” or the visual part of the iceberg to become aware of the many causes that can feed into an issue (or what is beneath the water’s surface that is unseen and needs to be chipped apart for examination). The iceberg model has five levels, from top to bottom: 1) an easily seen event or incident happens and is a symptom of a bigger problem, 2) similar events happen again and again, 3) physical barriers, policies, rituals and organizations enable events to happen, 4) conscious and unconscious thoughts drive people’s behavior and 5) society’s core beliefs and values either shape or constrain people’s assumptions and behavior.

Man singing with another man holding a trombone This process helped students to broaden their perspectives beyond themselves and consider other student’s opinions. They began to understand how individual backgrounds and experiences—good and bad—can influence those ideas, which may be different from their own. Rather than taking everything at face value and responding in a reactive, confrontational mode, they stopped and reflected on what was going on behind the words and actions. All of this helped build empathy and compassion, empowering students to share their thoughts, words and emotions and to self-express in their art. Finally, this understanding enabled meaningful participation that let students feel hopeful that their voices were being heard, as well as understood, formally on-stage and informally in everyday life.

Diversity in Health Professions: 3 Ways Dalhousie is Looking to the Future

Graduation season may be over, but here at the Johnson Scholarship Foundation we’re still enjoying the many stories we hear about students whose lives were transformed because of the scholarships, programs and organizations that we help to fund.

young woman looking through microscopeAs the newest member of the JSF team, I was excited to hear about a milestone for our grantee partner Dalhousie University. The school recently celebrated the graduation of its largest-ever class of medical doctors of African descent.

These six students (with another cohort of six coming up behind them) received help along their educational journey from the university’s Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) program.

JSF is a supporter of PLANS, as well as the Indigenous Health Programs at Dalhousie. Over the course of our five-year partnership, which began in 2015, JSF is committed to matching up to $1 million raised by the University.

These programs employ a multifaceted approach to increase the representation of traditionally marginalized groups in the health professions. One way they are accomplishing this is by realizing that reaching students starts early.

two students and a teacher wearing a lab coat and masksIn a blog post for JSF earlier this year, Shawna O’Hearn with Dalhousie’s Global Health Office reported on the PLANS summer camp program that introduces African Nova Scotian high school students to health professions.

The camp has become so popular that it has expanded to accommodate more students. The first of three camp sessions begins next week at Dalhousie’s campus in Halifax. Two others are planned over the following two weeks, one at Cape Breton University in Sydney and one at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

The faculty and staff at Dalhousie know that many of these students will need extra support when they reach college. To this end, the first-ever PLANS Prep Institute began earlier this week and concludes on Saturday.

Young woman sitting at desk with a welcome to summer camp sign

The institute is designed to help students entering college to develop the skills they need and ease the transition from high school. Throughout the academic year students also can receive mentorship and academic support through PLANS.

PLANS is similar to other successful programs that support disadvantaged students in that it recognizes that mentors and role models are important. Several African-descended students in the three health faculties at Dalhousie are choosing to help younger students by serving as camp counselors. Current students serve as mentors to high school students during the school year.

back of a tshirt with logos on it

The camps and the PLANS Prep Institute are a part of a much larger effort, of course. Projects are also underway to introduce Indigenous students to the growing healthcare field.

By looking to the future, Dalhousie is poised to have a tremendous impact on increasing diversity in the health professions. We look forward to hearing about more of those stories in the years to come.

The Fading American Dream

Raj ChettyRaj Chetty is a professor of economics at Stanford University and has been recognized by the American Economic Association as the best American economist under age 40. His current research focuses on equality of opportunity: how can we give children from disadvantaged backgrounds better chances of succeeding?

Professor Chetty’s research shows that the American dream of upward mobility is fading. An American child from a household with an income in the bottom quintile has a 7% chance of achieving an income in the top quintile. By comparison a Canadian child in the same situation has a 13% chance, almost double. Several other nations lead the US in social mobility. This is in spite of America’s prowess in producing private wealth.

Father holding child's handAnother finding is that the odds of a child earning more than his or her parents are declining. In 1940 there was a 90% chance that an American child would earn more than his or her parents. By the 1980s chances were about 50/50. Only time will tell but there is no reason to think that millennials will fare better.

The potential for upward economic mobility used to be the unique promise of American society. Unfortunately this potential is being realized by increasingly fewer people.

United states on a globeThe reasons for the fading American dream are complex. Professor Chetty’s research shows that geography is a factor. Children in the southeast states are not as upwardly mobile as children in most other parts of the country. There is also a correlation between neighborhoods and mobility. A child from a racially integrated neighborhood has a better chance. Causes for this can be debated. However, the value of education as a vehicle for social mobility is something that everyone can agree on. There is a direct correlation between the amount of education a person acquires and the amount of money they earn over a lifetime.

student walking in an aisle of booksJSF’s mission is to “assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment.” We can equate the word “disadvantaged” to households with incomes in the bottom quintile (the upper limit for these households is about $21 thousand per annum). JSF focusses on the education and employment of these people. We seek to address the problem of inequality of access to good education. The evidence that this makes a significant difference is overwhelming.

American flagI recently referenced a survey, in which only 13% of Foundation CEO’s said that they believed Foundations make a “significant difference.” Some of the CEO’s (and the surveyors) cited the “sheer magnitude and complexity” of the problems as one reason for not making a significant difference. It seems trite to say that a foundation, or anyone else, can only make a significant difference if it directs its attention to a discrete aspect of a problem.

No foundation (or government) can “fix” the American dream. A foundation can, however, play a part in the movement to assist disadvantaged people to advance economically and thereby make a significant difference.