Ambitious, low-income kids get lift from education nonprofit

This digital composite shows file photos (L-R, clockwise) Uchenna Eze stands with his N.J. SEEDS mentor, Roy Cohen.  Students pose for photos before a...
This digital composite shows file photos (L-R, clockwise) Uchenna Eze stands with his N.J. SEEDS mentor, Roy Cohen. Students pose for photos before a...
Photo courtesy of N.J. SEEDS

Uchenna Eze took control of his future after his freshman year of high school. As a result, he decided to enroll at the University of Southern California this year after he received acceptance letters from at least 17 schools around the country.

Eze, a senior who graduated this month from Orange High School in New Jersey, is one student who was selected to join New Jersey SEEDS-Scholars, Educators, Excellence, Dedication, Success-after his freshman year.

The nonprofit organization, founded more than 20 years ago, ensures that its students have the knowledge, skills, and support to thrive throughout college. Its College Preparatory Program aims to take high-achieving, low-income students, and guarantee they graduate and are accepted into distinct colleges and universities.

“We’re all there because we want to be there. It was us taking control of our future,” Eze, who described himself as a close-minded person until his participation in the program, told msnbc.

N.J. SEEDS accepts 15 students per class year from Orange High School and Trenton High School. Students endure a selective recommendation and application process in order to enroll after their freshman year.

The average total income of a family with a SEEDS scholar is about $35,000 per year.

“You give one student the opportunity to go to college, to have a career, to raise children…you change not just that one life but you change the lives of a social circle,” Ronni Denes, president and executive director of SEEDS, told msnbc.

For every high-achieving, low-income student who applies to college, there are about 15 high-achieving, high-income students who apply, according to a 2012 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many of these low-income kids do not apply to any selective college, so they are “invisible to admission staff.”

This month, 28 SEEDS scholars graduated from high school. As a group, they received 124 acceptance letters to 50 colleges and universities in 14 states.

Sam Akande, who also graduated from Orange High, said his life became “significantly better” after he joined.

“I still don’t know much about the world, but through SEEDS I know living in the city isn’t all there is to life,” Akande said.

The college program prepares students for standardized testing, educates them about unfamiliar colleges, pairs them with mentors who assist in making decisions about higher education, and advises them with the financial aid process. The scholars also receive academic and financial guidance throughout college.

“It’s so important that students recognize not just where they want to go and what they want to study, but to find a school that is also interested in them and has the resources to support them,” Denes said.

Students described the program as rigorous and challenging, but also fun because they learn how to thrive in college.

“Do not prejudge anything because you don’t know what the outcome might be,” Nordia Bennett, a graduated senior from Trenton High School, told msnbc.

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