In The News

Darren Harper, College Advisor

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Describe your own educational journey through high school and college.

In high school I wasn’t a very strong student. I went to summer school my freshman year, and my grades were always a bit below average. I just never really wanted to put in the time to study, and because of that I didn’t really have a lot of college options, so I decided to go to Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). It was pretty embarrassing because I was failing classes right off the bat while my father went to Cornell and Columbia and my mom went to NYU. It was discouraging because not only did I not think that I was college material, but now I felt like it was being confirmed that I wasn’t college material. Some of my friends who were in the same situation just dropped out of school right then and there, but I went back the next year and passed all my classes. 

Then I went to Saint Francis to study psychology. For one of the classes I took in my third year I had to have a practicum and internship. I went to an elementary school in Brooklyn where I worked with fifth grade students. From the moment I helped to redirect one kid away from making a poor decision, I was like, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I decided I wanted to be a guidance counselor, so I applied to NYU for their school counseling program. I didn’t think I was going to get in, but I did, and I was just over the moon. If I think back to the struggling high school student who felt he wasn’t college material and then to get a scholarship from NYU… it was just a dream to actually be in that situation.

What parallels do you see between your past and the challenges faced by many of our students at People’s Prep?

It wasn’t until I knew what I wanted to do that I actually started to care about school. In my role as a 9th and 10th grade college advisor, I am finding out what students’ interests are and what they can possibly do in the future based on those interests. I find that very rewarding because some students are just going through their schooling like zombies. They may wonder why they have to follow all these rules and have no idea what purpose any of this serves until I meet with them and find out what they are interested in. I can show them how school, summer programs, extracurricular activities, and relationship building can get them to what they are interested in. That’s when they start to wake up and say, “Okay now I know the purpose. Now I know why I’m going to school everyday.” That was me. I didn’t know what my purpose was until someone helped me find it.

How is the work that you do on a daily basis in the Office of College Placement (OCP) unique to People’s Prep?

Although I’m a 9th and 10th grade college advisor, I have the privilege of working with every grade in the school. I’m primarily responsible for underclassmen, but juniors were in my caseload last year so they naturally come to me for help with opportunities, resumes, essays, etc. Sometimes when they’re in the classroom, their focus is on getting what they need in order to pass the class and close relationships are not being built. When teachers have 30 students,  their primary objective is not necessarily to know the inner workings of their students’ lives. So when I’m meeting with a student one-on-one, I’m able to have those conversations about their life story and find out some of the things that they are going through. I find that to be very helpful in my work because I’m able to build those relationships and build trust. I can be a shoulder to lean on when things are getting rough and the regular days are getting mundane. 

What is it like to work in the OCP at People’s Prep?

My role is kind of entrepreneurial in a sense. I know what my goals and objectives are, but I don’t have a set lesson plan I follow.  I’m normally trying new things, failing at some, and then restarting and sharpening some tools to make a well-run machine. I find that enjoyable. With the support of my teammates and my direct manager, I’m allowed to make mistakes and get feedback on how I can improve. They trust in my abilities.

What personal reflections have you had about the important work you do with young Black men and women at a point where racial injustice is at the forefront?

This is why I love the work I do as far as providing opportunities for students. Opportunities are so important to opening the landscape around them which helps to shape their future. Sadly, you can’t change what’s in most people’s hearts, but we can place the students we care about in places where they are able to explore the spaces they thought were off limits to them. We have students who want to start their own business who maybe don’t have a stable family structure or have responsibilities that may prevent them from pursuing their areas of interest. There are also students who don’t live in a community where they were able to access the necessary resources to make that a reality. When they come to us they are surrounded by mentors and stability. They are able to learn the things they need to learn to go to college and they have tools to network and open doors that were once unavailable to them. In the face of anything they come in contact with in the future, they will be more stable because of the opportunities they have been provided here.