The list of guests for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Strive Toward Excellence Program (STEP) included teachers, a corporate lawyer, an engineer and a pre-med student.
About 300 came to Quaker Square on Friday night for the induction of 23 new students to enter the pre-college preparatory program and to congratulate five students who will graduate from the University of Akron this year.
In 1988, the Firestone Trust Fund awarded the university $3 million to start the program. Participants become known as “Firestone Fellows.”
The Akron-area graduates of STEP echoed how supportive the program was in their development and how it helped them become more disciplined and focused on academics.
“Firestone wanted to invest in students who had the capability to go to college but for various reasons didn’t have the opportunity to attend,” said Ben Ammons, former corporate senior vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone and former UA Board of Trustees chair, who assisted with the creation of the program. “It was designed to help young people to set their standards higher than only settling to graduate from high school.”
He said the program has exceeded expectations and attributed much of its success to the coordinator of the program, Deborah Stone, and her staff.
Stone has been with the program from its inception and has seen 600 students participate.
“We get kids much younger to start thinking about college. They are actually selected while they are sixth-graders. They will stay in the program during their middle school years and the University of Akron has a high school pre-college program called Upward Bound they attend in the summer,” Stone said.
If they choose to attend the University of Akron, they receive scholarship money for their education. The program has had 80 percent of UA enrollees earn their degrees, but some students are recruited to attend other universities such as Yale, Columbia, Spelman and Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“The target population [for the program] is those who come from low-income families and/or neither parent have a baccalaureate degree,” she said. “Typically the odds of them going on to college is not as great as those kids who come from families who have a college education. They are most likely the first ones in their family to get a college degree.”
Stone said she is in an enviable position.
“I get to see them as sixth-graders, coming into themselves. That’s at the beginning of the program and I work with them through middle school,” she said. “I see them from pre-adolescence going into adulthood. They come in to me and they come back to me because I also run the undergraduate component at Akron.”
This year’s speaker, Wendel Niles, 35, graduated from Akron in 2000 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is an engineering manager for Advanced Aerofoil Technologies in Germany. He joined STEP as a sixth-grader in 1989.
He said he knew what he wanted to do in life when he was in the fourth grade.
“I was about 10 years old. I was really interested about how things worked and was always taking things apart — clocks, my toys. That’s how old I was when my mom bought me a biology field kit complete with test tubes, tweezers and a microscope. I would spend hours searching for new species of bugs in my backyard. I was fascinated by science projects like the candle heat vacuum and the paperclip motor.”
He said his parents, Leanna and Wendel Niles, split up when he was too young to remember and there weren’t many luxuries like the Boy Scouts or basketball camps.
“Extracurricular activities cost money that my mom didn’t have,” he said. “But my mom was very generous with her time and took my sister and me to the library a lot and made sure that we read. My sister and I also kept busy because we had vivid imaginations.”
He said he enjoyed being smart in school and saw neighborhood kids end up in jail, on drugs, dealing with pregnancies or worse.
He said he is thankful for STEP because it gave him an opportunity to be more ambitious in life and to go to college without financial pressures.
“STEP let me explore a lifestyle that many inner-city black kids never get to see. It gave me a glimpse of the lifestyle that I wanted,” Niles said.
Another fellow graduate, Derrick Hall, 36, one of the first to graduate from STEP, said he grew up in a biracial family that went through some financial difficulties. Hall, who has memories of standing in line for free cheese, said his family lived in low-income areas and received food stamps.
“I am thankful for STEP because it allowed me to grab onto my dreams with both hands and not let go,” he said. “The program teaches us to dream big.”
Stone said Hall came into the program with a list of career goals, not just one, and has accomplished just about everything on his list. He’s a corporate lawyer and pharmacist and wants to go into public service. Stone and Hall both say his ultimate goal is to become president of the United States, but for now he will run for an Akron City Council seat in late summer.
This year’s college graduates, all from UA, are Holly Beach, with a bachelor’s degree in social work; Nicole Brownlow and Jacqueline Hayden, with degrees in speech-language pathology and audiology; Amira Carswell, marketing, and Ross Davis, business administration.
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or email@example.com.