Prepping the best to learn and lead

Growing up in Brooklyn, Collin Williams got plenty of attention for being a smart, motivated student. Sometimes, that attention wasn’t great: Being a self-described kid who “had all the answers” got him bullied by his classmates.

But he got some positive attention, too. In his fifth grade year, Williams’ elementary school teachers identified him as a high-performer in the school. This qualified him to apply to Prep for Prep, which recognizes New York City’s most promising students of color, admits them to a rigorous academic preparatory program, and prepares them for independent and boarding schools in New York and the Northeast.

From there, students go on to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country, including Penn, which has graduated Prep students since 1989—the year the first Prep contingent completed college. Since Prep for Prep’s founding in 1978, 147 Prep alums have earned undergraduate degrees at the University, including Williams, who is a 2011 graduate of the College and will complete his Ph.D. at the Graduate School of Education next year.

Once Williams qualified for Prep for Prep, he took tests to measure his math and verbal skills, and went through several rounds of interviewing. After he was accepted, he started a 14-month course of study in the summer following fifth grade. The system is designed to prepare students for the challenging educational and social environment at independent and boarding schools.

“My friends in the summer were outside riding bikes; I’m doing schoolwork,” says Williams. “It felt like a sacrifice for so, so long.”

That is, until he got into Penn.

That’s when Williams says the impact of Prep for Prep registered with him. Despite experiencing moments of social and racial tension at his high school, he had excelled academically. Williams had gone on college trips with Prep advisers, held prestigious summer internships, and knew that he could set his post-high school sights high.

“Coming to Penn, I felt like I had already seen all the obstacles I would see, in terms of race and class,” says Williams. “By the time I got to Penn, I came here ready to be a leader.”

Eric Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions, says that the University recognizes that Prep students will come to Penn ready to learn and lead.

“The earlier you identify talent, the bigger impact you’re going to be able to have,” says Furda. “Knowing that they’re being exposed to a rigorous academic environment that mirrors the Penn environment, we’re going to have more confidence about their ability to come in … and not only take advantage of the Penn  environment, but also contribute.”

While an undergrad, Williams took courses in sociology, psychology, Spanish, and Africana studies, and was a co-instructor for Programs for Awareness in Cultural Education (PACE), run through the Greenfield Intercultural Center. In that course, students learn in-depth about the many dimensions of diversity by exploring the interrelated issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability.

Williams says Shaun Harper, associate professor at the Graduate School for Education, persuaded him to pursue graduate studies; for his Ph.D., Williams is studying racial equity in education, specifically as it pertains to student athletes—work that he says is directly related to Prep for Prep.

Furda notes that Prep for Prep is one of several programs, including QuestBridge and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), that enable Penn to admit high-caliber students who may have been traditionally underrepresented on campus.

“We feel it’s the right thing to do to reach out to students of talent, regardless of their background. … That is what we believe—philosophically, educationally, morally,” Furda says. “It’s going to be the best learning environment for all of our students.”

Penn President Amy Gutmann agrees, and recently met several Prep alums and current Penn students on campus.

“The Prep-Penn partnership is living proof that diversity and excellence go hand in hand,” Gutmann says.

Williams has worked for other college prep programs, but he says none is as comprehensive as Prep for Prep.

“Prep has people who work with you throughout your time in independent schools. My resume for college was robust,” Williams says. “Anything Prep asked me to do, I’ll do it. Who would I be to not give back?”

Prep for Prep Penn