In 2006, when I got a manila envelope introducing me to the University of Wisconsin PEOPLE Program and inviting me to apply, I had no idea how vital this program was to turning me into the person I am today. The PEOPLE Program is a pre-college program that takes motivated, low-income students from all around the state of Wisconsin and has them take classes and live in the UW-Madison dormitories for three weeks during their first two summers and for six weeks during their third summer.
I know firsthand how incredible this opportunity can be, so imagine my joy when I found out that 22 9th grade students from Bay View High School were eligible for the PEOPLE Program. I immediately jumped at the chance to be the point person for these students to make sure they applied to the program. I didn’t know what to expect as far as interest was concerned. Having worked with high school freshmen for the better part of 7 months, I know they are a very unpredictable bunch. I made my best pitch and a lot of the kids seemed very receptive and interested in the PEOPLE Program.
But as a lot of us know, expectations are often a far departure from reality. During the key moments of the application process, less than a week to go before applications were due, I had a nasty bout of the stomach flu. This was devastating not only because having the stomach flu is not an enjoyable experience, but also because I was not able to check in with students on how their applications were going and help some them get started on their applications. Not only that, but I was not even there to check in with students to see if they were still interested in applying.
So the next time you hear someone talk about how Madison Public School (MPS) students are all bad and don’t value education, tell them about Emily, a 9th grade PEOPLE applicant from Bay View who is taking all honors and 10th grade classes and still was able to get a 3.9 GPA last semester.
I recovered on Sunday and went back to school on Monday, two days before applications were due. Coincidentally, two was also the same number of students who had turned in their applications up until that point. I knew there was a lot of work still to be done before that Wednesday deadline. But I knew how life-changing a program like this can be for students. I was going to do whatever it took to get every application I could turned in.
The next day, I started to get the ball rolling on applications, and the magic number of students who showed interest and needed to turn in their applications was at 12. By the time Wednesday came that number changed to 10, yet still we looked to be in good shape to get all of those applications turned in. It took a lot of running around and coordinating with kids to get a majority of them to turn in their applications, with a few needing to stay after school to finish. However, a code yellow and riots in the school that day put a huge damper on those plans. The administration sent all students home and cancelled all after school activities. This meant that three students who were planning on finishing up what they had left on their applications were not able to do so.
One of those students was Raijanique, a girl who reminded me of how I was as a 9th grader: very smart and very inquisitive but needing something like the PEOPLE Program to challenge her to ensure that she didn’t fall behind when it came time to go to college. I was very dejected when I discovered that she was not able to to stay after school to finish her application. But I decided to contact her mother before I left that day and luckily we worked something out where she was able to come to the school late to finish her essay and have me turn in her application on time. I went home at about 7:30 pm that night, both extremely exhausted and extremely elated that I was able to fulfill my promise to those kids and put them in a position to someday reach their full potential. In the end, all 10 students were able to complete their applications and are awaiting word on whether or not they get in.
Sadly, not all of these students will get into the PEOPLE Program, even though all of them deserve it. The PEOPLE Program had to cut spots because of a shortage in funding, and because there are certain people out there that don’t believe that these kids deserve opportunities like this. But based on what I went through in the last few weeks and hearing the stories of the students that I helped apply to the program, I am here to unconditionally say that these students are absolutely worth it. If we’re being honest these students should not have to apply in order to have about a 10 percent chance to challenge themselves academically and to have the opportunity to create a brighter future for themselves. It should be available to them from the outset, and it’s almost inconceivable to me that there are individuals out there with supreme amounts of influence and power who think otherwise.
So the next time you hear someone talk about how Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students are all bad and don’t value education, tell them about Emily, a 9th grade PEOPLE applicant from Bay View who is taking all honors and 10th grade classes and still was able to get a 3.9 GPA last semester. Tell them about Yvonne, another student and a gifted writer who applied to PEOPLE and needed to get an excuse from her teacher to come to me and finish her essay. Tell them about Raijanique, who wrote this at the end of her personal statement:
“I almost missed this opportunity. It was going to be upsetting. I came back to school to finish. I couldn’t miss this for nothing in the world. It’s too important to me.”