Moving Beyond Access: The Garcia Family Lecture

What does an equitable and inclusive school community look like? And how has the pandemic added another layer of complexity to this essential work?

Guided by these questions, two prominent leaders in education – Ruth Jurgensen, CEO of Prep for Prep, and Dr. Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling – shared their expertise and perspectives with Chapin community members during the 2021 Garcia Family Foundation Scholarship Series Lecture, which took place virtually on January 21.

“I know we’ll enjoy a robust and important discussion,” said Head of School Suzanne Fogarty as the far-reaching webinar got underway. “It’s an honor and a privilege to turn the conversation to Ruth and Angel.”

Greeting the audience from their side-by-side Zoom boxes, Ms. Jurgensen and Dr. Pérez quickly set the tone with their warm, knowledgeable demeaners, their mutual respect, and their clear passion for helping young people reach their potential.

“There is nothing more important than talking about equity,” said Ms. Jurgensen, who joined Prep for Prep in September. Since its founding in 1978, Prep identifies New York City’s most promising students of color and prepares them to thrive in independent schools throughout the Northeast. Prep for Prep students go on to distinguish themselves at prestigious colleges and universities all over the world.

To achieve equity, the speakers noted, students from all backgrounds must be able to take full advantage of a school or college’s programs and resources. However, creating a diverse student body is simply the first step in a complex, ever-evolving process. “Getting in and receiving financial aid is not enough,” stressed Dr. Pérez. “Students need to have access to all your institution has to offer.”

In his work at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Dr. Pérez oversees a global team dedicated to supporting a wide range of learners as they apply to and enroll in higher education. First-generation students and students of color are of particular interest to him.

Both speakers gave striking examples of students who faced obstacles in their educational journeys. After a talented scholar’s grades fell in a chemistry class, Dr. Pérez recounted, the professor discovered that this student could not afford the costly textbook. Another chose not to pursue an internship possibility because she didn’t have a professional outfit for the interview.

Dr. Pérez also shared that some students attend Zoom classes or FaceTime with their teachers in their bathrooms. “It’s the only place they can have privacy,” a reality the pandemic has only exacerbated. Ms. Jurgensen pointed out that studying remotely does has some positive results as well. “The online experience can level the playing field,” she said. For instance, “Introverts can thrive.”

In a reflective moment, Ms. Jurgensen relayed a frustrating experience of her own. When it came time to print her thesis, she did not have enough money to purchase the required paper. Although a friend who worked in the computer lab helped print the manuscript, she emphasized that policies should be put in place to help students avoid similar stumbling blocks.

“College is a language to be learned,” said Dr. Pérez, adding that “we need to de-code the language.” Oftentimes, first-generation students struggle because they don’t have “social and cultural capital” and are unsure where to turn for help. He urged higher education officials to establish and cultivate “an ecosystem for student success.”

In addition to access to mental-health services and career counseling, for example, “all students should have a peer mentor, an individual advisor, and writing tutor,” said Dr. Pérez. On the admissions front, standardized tests should be rethought or eliminated entirely. “The SAT is not the best predictor of success.”

Further, this so-called ecosystem needs to promote “an intentional culture of belonging,” dismantling the imposter syndrome disadvantaged students may experience. When counseling such students, “I try to remove shame. You belong here. You earned a space here. Here’s where you need to go for resources,” said Ms. Jurgensen.

Dr. Pérez told the Chapin audience that he encourages students to attend pre-orientation sessions and join affinity groups that align with their backgrounds and interests. “We should look at the first year of college as one big orientation program,” he said, adding that Covid-19 has resulted in a “lost generation” of students, with a significant number deferring their studies until next fall and others heading to campus for the first time after a year of virtual learning.

Both speakers agreed on one particularly challenging consequence of the pandemic: the inability to connect in-person with students. “You can’t tap students on the shoulder to remind them,” said Dr. Pérez.

Looking ahead, “we hope students have more inclusive experiences,” said Ms. Jurgensen. Dr. Pérez agreed, commenting that “this is a perfect moment for colleges to reinvent.” He noted as well that it’s also a critical time for independent schools to evaluate and strengthen their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, “so by the time the students are seniors and applying to college, they know the questions to ask.” Dr. Pérez added that “the beauty of independent schools is it’s a relationship for life.”

“Thank you again, Ruth and Angel,” said Ms. Fogarty, encouraging the audience to unmute themselves and give these distinguished guest speakers a round of applause. Ms. Fogarty also thanked Renata and Claudio Garcia for making this absorbing and informative event possible.