Guest Post: Turning the Tassel – The Student Who Changed My Life

June 21, 2017

Guest Post by Oliver Sicat, CEO of Ednovate

Graduation is always a special time for me as a school leader. At Ednovate, our mission is to educate high school students who will use their college degrees and careers to enact Positive Multigenerational Change in their communities, nation and world. There are currently three schools in the Ednovate network. Each student in our community is so dear to me, and there are few things more gratifying than seeing them reach the important milestone of high school graduation.

But this year, it was a college graduation that was the most memorable to me. A former student of mine, Felicia, who I met long before I opened Ednovate, graduated from UMass Amherst this spring. A few weeks ago, I flew there from Los Angeles to see Felicia receive her Bachelor’s Degree, 11 years after I watched her graduate from high school.

As an educator, each student touches your life in a different way. I met Felicia in 2002 when I was a high school math teacher in Boston, and she inspired me to ultimately found the schools I opened in Chicago and Los Angeles. I remember those days when she would tell me: “I’m bored” or “I’m not being challenged.” Back then, I wished I had a way for Felicia to work at her own level without waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. Instead, I would tell her to go to the computer lab and research something she was interested in.  The trouble was Felicia didn’t know what she was interested in because she hadn’t yet found her passion, and her school didn’t have a structure to help her discover it. That experience inspired me to create a model that would have better set her up for success.

I’m thankful to NewSchools Venture Fund for supporting us as one of our earliest funders, which was crucial to getting Ednovate off the ground. Ednovate is just five years old, but we’ve had a 100 percent graduation rate each year, and from last year’s graduating class, 93 percent are still in college in their second year.

I worked with Felicia throughout her high school years and when she was accepted at college I was so excited to tour her around the campus. I went with her to freshman orientation and bought her and myself a Bridgewater State University t-shirt. But within the first semester, staying on top of classes and finances became too difficult and she left the school. Felicia told me, “I will graduate from college, I promise.” I said, “I’ll be there,” and that was 11 years ago. We stayed in contact and she kept me updated on her life – she had two kids, got married, and bounced between different community colleges and online degree programs until landing at UMass Amherst University Without Walls where she found her groove. Felicia realized she wanted to create an afterschool program to help students like her through high school, and finding this passion gave her a strong purpose to finish her degree.

One year ago she contacted me and said, “Here is my graduation date.” Felicia never asks for anything but I knew from her message that she remembered the promise I made. I kept that date on my calendar, and when she reached out again a few months ago, I booked a ticket to Boston. I had a great time seeing her after 11 years and meeting her husband and two beautiful kids, and I could tell she was filled with pride.

Felicia’s story is not unusual – many of her fellow students faced similar obstacles to obtain a college degree. Out of Felicia’s group of 20 students, only three graduated from college within four years. Often students left school because the academic requirements were too difficult to finish in four years, and the additional semesters created an impossible amount of debt.

Graduations are enormous accomplishments for students – many of whom have faced challenges you couldn’t even imagine – but we’re hoping high school isn’t the last graduation ceremony they attend. I’ve been to many graduations as a teacher, a principal and a founder of a network of schools, and I’ve learned that getting students to their high school graduation is just the first step. If the school has done its job right, we’ve set up them to succeed in their next chapter without us. Graduation at Ednovate is always a special day for me, but four years from now I’m hoping to be at a whole bunch of new graduations for our students who are on track to finish college.