The Harlem Educational Activities Fund was founded to bridge academic and opportunity gaps that prevent barriers for students from underserved communities from fair and equitable opportunities for collage and ultimately meaningful careers. College is the rule at HEAF; where 100% of the organization’s students graduate on-time from high school, are accepted at and succeed in college. For a decade, HEAF has convened a cross-organization program to celebrate the high school graduations and college decisions of students from across New York City and beyond who have been supported, encouraged and empowered by HEAF’s peer college access programs.

This year’s event took place at the Police Athletic League – Harlem Center. Students from peer college access programs were celebrated:

The evening opened with a stellar performance by the New Settlement NXT LVL Dancers. The dance team was founded in 2006 and consists of young talented dancers who are committed to their craft and willing to work hard to become well rounded artists. Artistic Director and choreographer Mickey Sakai has been helping these young dancers find their voices, using dance to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves. Next Settlement has been a College Decision Day partner organization for years and we were thrilled to have their dance team kick off the night.

The Police Athletic League Executive Director Carlos Velazquez welcomed the audience and proudly talked about the impact both the PAL and college access programs have on the youth. His bright personality shined through when he gave a shout out to the students committed to attend his alma mater, Syracuse University.

HEAF’s President & CEO Michael Johnson then launched the formal program, beaming with pride as he talked about all the high school seniors have accomplished, and the path that lies ahead of them. Mr. Johnson underscored the importance to college access programs, noting that college and university enrollment of Black students is down 22% from 2010 and 2020, and it has fallen another 7% since then. “Our students deserve a fair chance at college and careers. Our job is not done once they enter college. For as long as they are working through college and entering the workforce, we are there to support them.”

Kadia Tubman, Insider’s Managing Editor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, was the night’s emcee. She expertly guided the 200+ audience through the evening, and shared key insights and personal lessons along the way. Students really leaned in as Ms. Tubman conveyed an important message that her very own college access program taught her: “to go faster, you can go alone. But to go further we must go together.”

A highlight of the program, 11 students representing 11 different partner organizations delivered a commencement speech they collaborated on over several weeks. Their enthusiasm for working together and the relationships they forged over a short period of time was evident to all in attendance as they cheered for one another and embraced on stage.

The seniors speakers included:

  • a student who loves theater and telling stories that impact others
  • a dance team captain who organized an initiative to bring joy to area senior citizens
  • a golfer who participated in the Pure Insurance ProAm First Tee Championship and received a scholarship to play golf in college
  • a senior who is the first person on her father’s side of the family to attend college
  • a senior who has learned to overcome extreme challenges and has grown in her journey,
  • a determined student who is graduating early and starting college at the age of 16
  • a student who fights for social issues and is not afraid of rejection
  • a squash player who started the first ever all-Black squash team
  • a senior who wants to be successful for who is he and what he has accomplished and not be judged for what he looks like
  • TWO Posse Scholars!

The student speech was a hard act to follow, but keynote speaker Deputy Commissioner Mike Bobbitt of New York City’s Department of Youth and Community was up for the challenge and graciously praised the teens, noting their collaborative speech was “the best commencement address I’ve ever seen.” Deputy Commissioner Bobbitt stressed the importance of college access programs like HEAF and the CDD partner organizations, noting: “Only about one in four Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have attained a bachelor’s degree, compared to nearly two-thirds of white New Yorkers” according to a study by the center for Urban Future. He thanked the college access programs for making a difference in the lives of students across communities who are overlooked.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Bobbitt also shared best wishes and some insight from DYCD Commissioner Keith Howard, who visited HEAF this fall – read about that visit here.

The pinnacle of evening was the college decision announcements from nearly 100 high school students. They took to the stage to proudly announce their college decision, cheered on by their families, friends, programs and a cheering squad of HEAF Corporate Partner volunteers from Chubb, Ares Management and Chanel.

Throughout the evening, representatives from each of the college access programs also addressed the crowd, sharing their nonprofit missions, and celebrating their students.

In her final remarks, Kadia shared about her own journey getting to college and the lessons she learned on the way. She finished by talking directly to the high school seniors saying, “It is my hope that you will live one full life. Your Life! The life you deem best for you. Remember to think for yourself, and be brave enough to follow your dreams, no matter where they take you – there and back.”

To close out the night with a bang, HEAF senior Justin and his step team Catastrophic Discretion delivered an exhilarating Step performance that sent the seniors off with words of wisdom and inspiration.

HEAF is grateful for the generous support of Cross River, which allowed for this incredible event. Through College Decision Day, students from many different high schools and college access programs have the opportunity to broaden their networks, including with students who will attend the same colleges in the fall. These networks strengthen success on campus and beyond.

View the College Decision Day photo gallery here.