Christine Sylvain Of Path to College: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System
We really need to focus on bringing the arts into teaching and projects as much as possible so that it’s fun for students and really step away from this idea that all kids can learn all things at the same time. We’ve got to really group the kids differently.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Christine Sylvain.
Christine Sylvain is the Founder and Executive Director of the Path to College Fellowship, whose mission is to secure the acceptance of as many high-achieving, low-income students into top-tier universities as possible. Christine’s vision is to answer and address one of society’s most urgent educational inequities: access to higher education. She has a Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in Political Science from the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I am the daughter of a Haitian-American immigrant father and an Irish-American mother. I was born in New York and grew up all over Florida.
I always say the path to success is not linear. I was the typical kind of smart kid in my household and I was pegged as the type who should be a lawyer very young. I was always education and school-focused up until high school when my brother has some issues, my dad lost his job and went through a period of unemployment, and our family just really struggled during that time. My parents moved a lot to try to find better work situations for my dad and it really disheveled me as a student and as an adolescent. It didn’t give me a good adolescence to thrive, so launching into college, I didn’t really even want to go. I felt burned out and wanted to take a year off, but it was my brother who came to me and said, “No, you‘ve got to go to college. You’re the smart one of the family. I dropped out. You gotta go.”
So, I applied to just one school and it was a great college that I would say saved me. I earned my Bachelor of Arts cum laude in Political Science from the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. I got into a ton of very prestigious law schools and decided not to go after doing an internship where saw the career more up-close. After making my dad cry, I did take that year off finally and moved to New York, where I got my Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University. This was during the financial crisis, so the messaging was very doom and gloom about print media.
I ended up segueing over into documentary work and worked as an associate producer in Miami for documentaries for PBS and HBO, as well as doing a lot of narrative type videos for companies there. I had a baby and was not happy with the balance of career and motherhood, so I decided for a short period of time that I would teach, so that I could be home more and I fell into teaching. I put my resume out there, I got hired the next day after a 25 minute interview, and started two weeks later. That’s when I really got exposed to so much disparity in the education system. I was in Riviera Beach, Fla. and I was exposed to a lot of students with Haitian backgrounds who were just as smart as I was and whose families had gone through a lot more than my family had and who needed that extra support and doors opened to opportunity, but it wasn’t then that I was ready to do that.
I had a second child and worked for a private school where I got really good at teaching the SAT and ACT as well as doing college advising on top of teaching English and tutoring and U.S. history. That was great for when my son was young, but I felt like I had more to give to the community and that there was this group of students who really, really needed the help and I just thought, I can do something for these kids and I’m going to. I got really obsessed with wanting to make a difference and wanting to start a non-profit. I worked on it for about 10 months after work and deep into the night hours for no pay. I was able to secure some funding and get a very small stipend and go down to super part time at my job. Within another six months, I was able to take it on full time. It’s been a lot of work and growth since then and getting the community behind me to run an organization that has a half million-dollar budget and has helped thousands of kids.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on in my career, one of my mentors said, “Once you’re successful, people will start to come for you.” I really didn’t think that would apply to me, but within a year, I had people who I consider on the same team as me, doing the same work, trying to work for educational equity, basically teaming up to try to make me look bad, to try to mess with us. I was so attacked by people who should be co-conspirators and collaborators, and were a bit threatened by my work and my determination. They did all they could to try to knock me off and they were not successful. I think what I learned was that I have a very strong sense of character. I never retaliated at them. I never talked badly about them in the community. I just remained focused on the work and kept doing really great work that was hard to ignore and those people no longer became an issue.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our 5th Annual Education Fest will be held June 9th at 5:30 p.m. at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach. At the event, we will hold a student persuasive speech contest, award the Education Champion Of the Year, and host a panel on the future of artificial intelligence in education. It’s going to be a very entertaining and really thought-provoking event.
The next exciting project that we are working on is in partnership with NextEra, the parent company of Florida Power & Light (FPL), and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). We are going to be hosting a 50-student youth energy academy where the students will spend a day at their nuclear energy plant up in St. Lucie County and learn all about the careers of the future.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I am the Founder and Executive Director of Path to College. We fearlessly clear the path for overlooked students to get into the best colleges. We do that through rigorous expert college admission guidance to secure full-ride scholarships and expand the students’ network to launch their futures with unparalleled career opportunities. I am an authority on this subject matter because of my experiences as a teacher, as a non-profit executive, and as someone who has helped hundreds upon hundreds of students personally increase their competitiveness in college admissions, as well as navigate through the education system.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Globally, we are falling way behind in math and science and I do think it’s a matter of national security. We need our American companies and students and future leaders to be the best to keep up with cybersecurity and financial tech security. That’s where everything is going now and if our kids can’t do advanced math at a very high level, we’re going to fall behind. Kids in India and China are doing math at the dinner table every single night and I think most Americans don’t get it or don’t realize how important it is that we are in competition with others.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
There are only three that stand out to me:
1) I think our higher education system is really great. We definitely attract top talent from around the world, even though it’s expensive to attend.
2) I think we are seeing the switch to project-based learning, which is great.
3) We are seeing a lot of performing arts schools and choice programs, which are all wonderful. My questions is, how can we make those really amazing schools the standard?
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
I can think of four:
1) Teacher retention and training. It all starts with teachers, no matter what policies are happening. If we have great teachers in a classroom, the students are going to learn.
2) I think we should prioritize cultural competency and mentoring. Understand that in order for a child to learn from you, they have to trust you. They have to trust you enough to be vulnerable in your presence to get something wrong.
3) Great teachers lead with love. So often, and it’s very unfortunate, teachers get very burned out and they forget to bring that loving approach into the classroom and they lose kids.
4) One of the areas that could really improve the system is to get the politics out of education. Education is not a political battlefield. It is just about going with the best data and the best theoretical approaches that we have for teaching.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
1) I think it comes down to companies realizing the need to engage young people in STEM. Get their hands in it and make robotics. Making cool things and doing projects that are fun and exciting that really light up our kids.
2) Companies need to create avenues for students to engage with the work because I think schools try their best, but there’s a knowledge gap. The industry is moving so fast. Teachers are not experts in STEM if they’re in a classroom year after year after year. It’s really hard for them to know the industry well, so we need to engage business leaders in teaching.
3) Organizations should host workshops, panel discussions, Q&A sessions, etc. with successful individuals in STEM fields for students to attend. Path to College recently hosted workshops on Biomechanical & Nano Engineering and Aviation & Aeronautical Engineering.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Girls and women are generally outperforming boys in the K-12 space there’s a lot of potential there. Again, it’s about exposure, so students don’t know about careers that they’ve never been exposed to. For instance, Path to College has done a 6-part STEM career panel series to teach our students through the words of people in the industry about those industries, about how they started, hand ow they fell into it. The other day we were talking to a mechanical engineer who started out in pursuit of a fashion degree and I just think that the more students are exposed to different types of people, the more they realize that the horizon is much wider than they maybe thought.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The U.S. is definitely investing in programs that get girls and women interested in STEM subjects, for instance Girls Who Code. That’s one that’s doing a lot of great work and there are branches of that all over the United States in colleges. That’s a really great program.
You have to think global, act local and again, it’s not about the federal government coming in and saying we need to do this. They can provide incentives, sure, but I think it’s companies and individuals who need to realize that our community is connected, that we all have a responsibility to kind of shepherd the next generation and that we need to make space in our lives to bring somebody into it who’s a young person, to mentor them, to teach them, to expose them, to guide them, to support them, to encourage them, and that if each individual person could take that on, we would have a much better society.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1) Retaining good teachers better- I think we need to reward teachers who stay in the field with a very competitive bonus structure and with different incentives for travel and for learning. Teachers are lifelong learners themselves, at least good teachers are. If we can have special programs for them to do externships, to do study abroad programs, and to continue their own personal learning so that they can bring it back to the classroom, I think you’ll get really engaged, excited teachers. I also think another thing teachers need is self-care and opportunities to de-stress.
It’s really hard to attract top talent to the education field because the salaries are so low and I say we need a bonus structure for teachers who stay in it a long time and I believe that, but I know the funding is very, very tight. I think school districts need to be very careful not to be top heavy and make sure that funding goes to teachers’ salaries as much as they can and I know that they try to. There’s some interesting stuff that’s happening to attract teachers to the field, but it’s just that top talent is going for the most exciting, highest paying jobs out there, so you have to get them young before they’re in a field where they realize how much they can really make in the world. They will fall in love with teaching because there is something very special about it.
2) Trying to remove politics from deciding what’s best for students.
3) I think the experts need to run it. Let teachers be on the education committees in each state.
4) People have been very critical about common core, but I actually find it to be a very great curriculum. What we see in the education circles is that curriculum really doesn’t get rewritten, it gets rebranded.
5) We really need to focus on bringing the arts into teaching and projects as much as possible so that it’s fun for students and really step away from this idea that all kids can learn all things at the same time. We’ve got to really group the kids differently.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are definitely quotes that drive my work and really clarify why I do what I do. One of them is from Stephen Jay Gould and his quote is, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
That one really drives home why I feel like we absolutely need to provide opportunity for every kid out there, no matter what, because I think it is better for society as a whole long-term to get the best and brightest functioning at the highest level.
Another one that I really love is a Toni Morrison quote: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”
One of Path to College’s core values is to try to create a bigger ripple effect through our students taking on leadership positions. We want our students to echo the expert advice that we give them and bring it to their friend groups and into their communities to try to create a bigger impact.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Christine Sylvain – West Palm Beach, Florida, United States | Professional Profile | LinkedIn
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Christine Sylvain Of Path to College: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.