Commentary: Should Mott Hall Bridges Academy Students Visit Harvard?

Commentary: Should Mott Hall Bridges Academy Students Visit Harvard?

Critics say the Brooklyn kids should go to an HBCU.

Published January 30, 2015

It started with a photo. It was of a fresh-faced young Black boy on the streets of Brooklyn, wearing a hoodie in the cold of January and trying to suppress a smile. Underneath the photo was a caption. "Who's influenced you the most in your life?"

"My principal, Ms. Lopez," the boy responded. "When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."

The photo of 13-year-old Vidal Chastanet, taken by photographer Brandon Stanton and posted on his website, Humans of New York, immediately caught my attention. Amid the recent swirl of negative news involving the depiction of young Black men in America, this story was refreshing. Plenty of readers agreed.

Vidal's photo quickly went viral, and soon people who had never heard of Principal Nadia Lopez, or Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, were sending money to support the school and its mission. The school raised more than $1 million, far beyond what they wanted, to send their "scholars" to visit Harvard University and to support other needs on campus.

Almost everyone likes to help a good cause, but some have raised concerns about the choice to send the kids to visit Harvard. Writer Jordan Bailey, for example, supports the fundraising campaign but questioned if the money could be better spent. "I think it’s dangerous to give these kids the impression that the picture of success is this predominantly white Ivy League institution," she wrote in a recent piece called "The Case Against Harvard: Why HONY should consider taking underserved scholars to an HBCU."

I understand Bailey's thinking, but to be clear, the school already plans to take the kids to visit a historically black college in February. They are reportedly considering Hampton University or Howard University. The school also plans to use some of the new money raised to expand a summer learning program.

But there's a deeper question here. Is it wrong to take the kids at this mostly Black school to visit Harvard?

I asked Kimberly N. Foster, an African-American Harvard woman, what she thought about this on Twitter. "I love my alma mater," she wrote back. "I'm grateful to have attended, so the idea that it's an empowering place only for white students is wrong." Foster acknowledged a case could be made against using Harvard as a standard for success, but she was pleased with what she got from the school.

"Harvard gave me a lot. I found myself and my passion there, so I'm offended by the notion that's it's not 'for' us," Foster wrote.

I have to admit I'm biased. I graduated from Harvard Law School, and I chose to go there after turning down a full scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis because I knew the Harvard name would open doors for me. Years later, although I'm still paying off student loan debt from Harvard, I don't regret the decision.

On the other hand, because I attended Harvard and Dartmouth College for undergrad, I know better than to believe that Ivy League schools are the best schools in America, or the best choice for success. Some of the most successful people I know attended HBCUs, and some of those who have struggled the most graduated from Ivy League colleges.

Although some schools have better name recognition than others, it's time to end the myth that you can't be successful if you go to a certain type of school. It may be more difficult coming from some places, but the most successful people are often the ones who overcome great difficulties in life to achieve.

From my experience, the college you attend, the subject you major in, the standardized test scores you receive, or the grades you earn in school are not the best predictors of future success. Success comes from determination, motivation, perseverance in the face of failure and sometimes just being in the right place at the right time.

I applaud Principal Lopez for taking her students to Hampton, Howard and Harvard, and to other quality schools as well. Each school is different, but they all have something to offer for those who are willing to take advantage of the opportunity. Students at Mott Hill Bridge Academy, and students all across the country, will be better off being aware of the many options in the world before them. 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin

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