Mentors set disadvantaged kids on the path to higher education

Carey Jenkins doesn't hesitate for an instant when asked the secret to his success in persuading kids at under-performing schools to work toward admission at challenging four-year colleges.

"Most people - black and white - expect nothing out of minority kids, and they get what they expect," he shoots back. "My kids know that I expect them to succeed, and they do."

Two years ago, the Monitor visited with Mr. Jenkins, a former sales executive with General Foods and Philip Morris who had left the business world to work with black and Hispanic high school students in Paterson, N.J. Jenkins founded Operation Link-Up (OLU), a program aimed at pairing students at one of Paterson's tough urban high schools with adult mentors from the surrounding, more affluent suburbs.

The mentoring is just one more means of encouraging these kids to set their sights on degrees from four-year colleges and white-collar professions. OLU also offers the students counseling and support throughout the college-admissions and -selection process.

In the past few years OLU has seen encouraging growth. Jenkins has expanded the program from one to four local high schools and now works with more than 700 students. This year, 118 OLU students were accepted to college, a 31 percent increase from last year.

A number of OLU students have found their way into prestigious four-year programs at schools like Syracuse University, Cornell, Boston College, Penn State, Notre Dame, and New York University.

Syracuse University - where Jenkins has worked to develop a particularly warm relationship with the administration - has now graduated 26 OLU students. Despite the fact that a number of these kids began college with academic records weaker than those of their peers, their success has been notable. Ninety percent of the OLU students who attended Syracuse have graduated within five years - compared with a national graduation rate of 50 percent within six years.

Achieving success against the odds is a story Jenkins can tell first-hand. He grew up in rural Mississippi, the sixth of nine children whose parents hadn't made it through grade school. But largely due to the example of a principal who served as his mentor, Jenkins worked his way through college and into a highly successful sales career.

Today his greatest interest lies in nurturing the academic talents of kids from underprivileged backgrounds and encouraging others to do likewise.

"If we would only take a few more moments with a child to find out about that child's potential, instead of just looking at some test," he says, "we'd have a better America."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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