For many high school students, going to college is an expected next step. For others, however, the process of applying to college and figuring out how to pay for it can be overwhelming.
On a mission to make education accessible to everyone, one man started a program that has grown dramatically over the years. In 1966, Silas Purnell started a college preparation and placement program at Ada S. McKinley Community Services. Now, 56 years later, the program has grown into the agency’s Educational Services division that provides multiple services.
“We believe that college is not just an option for a select few, however, it is an option for any and everyone who chooses to pursue it given the right amount of intervention, guidance, and resources,” said Venise Hardy, who now leads Educational Services as the vice president.
The college preparation and placement program helps match students with schools based on their interests and financial needs. Hardy says it has placed 75,000 students of color in more than 400 colleges and universities with more than $100 million in scholarships throughout its 60 years of existence.
Purnell left his corporate job to start the program. He opened a makeshift office in the basement of the Dearborn Homes housing development on Chicago’s South Side, where he counseled students, helped them get accepted to colleges and universities, and aided them in landing much-needed scholarships.
“He saw the potential in young African American girls and boys and then took it upon himself to ask them about their plans for the future,” said Hardy.
Hardy knows this firsthand. She started out at Ada S. McKinley as an academic instructor. Now 25 years later, she’s leading the program that Purnell started.
“I was actually mentored by Silas Purnell and so I got a chance to witness firsthand the impact that personalized, individualized support can have on first generation students in terms of encouraging them, motivating them to see a future beyond what they envisioned for themselves,” said Hardy.
The program is federally funded under the Higher Education Act. Educational specialists assist students at schools with a high number of low-income families.
Samuel Obeng is one of thousands of students who participated in the program. After graduating from Dunbar High School, he’s now attending Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and studying computer science. The program Purnell started helped him receive $80,000 in scholarships.
“That was really great, because it was like they were doing it from their heart. It was like they were doing it for their own children or for themselves and they did their best,” said Obeng.
Obeng isn’t the first of his family to go to college, but many of the students that work with Ada S. McKinley are first-generation students.
“If we can touch one child in the family, one youth in particular, one young Black man or one young Black woman that’s about to go to college and we change their path, then what happens is many of their siblings may follow in their footsteps. So we’re able to change an entire generation, an entire family of people and change their life,” said Jamal Malone, CEO of Ada S. McKinley.
Changing lives through education was Silas Purnell’s mission, a mission still being carried out today.
“He is a trailblazer because 75,000 African American Black and Brown students were able to access post-secondary opportunities that they under normal circumstances would not have been able to access,” said Hardy.
Purnell led the program at Ada S. McKinley until he retired in 2000. He died three years later at age 80. As the college preparation and placement program expands, Ada S. McKinley leaders are calling on alumni to help pay it forward by signing up to become a volunteer.