Christine Sylvain of Path to College: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit

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It’s very hard. I don’t think it’s for the weak willed. If you’re thinking about starting a non-profit and you’ve kind of started and it’s five years later and nothing has come of it, maybe you should find a non-profit that’s doing the work that you want to do and join them and help them because not everybody has to start their own non-profit. There has to be a need that is not being met before you start a non-profit.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing 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. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

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 tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?

I decided to start my non-profit because education is the answer. I’ve seen it really be the make or break linchpin of my own family’s success with my dad coming here with nothing from Haiti and really wagering his own intellect that he would be able to make it in this society, which he was.

Couple that backstory with just seeing kids with all the ambition in the worldn ot have any opportunity, it was just really sad. There are so many kids out there who just don’t have the right nurturing environment around them, but they’re so wonderful and they’re so smart and life just beats it out of them over time. They lower their ambitions and I just think that our whole community suffers when we allow that to happen.

I founded Path to College in 2017 because I have a deep understanding of some of the systemic challenges holding our best and brightest back from achieving the highest levels of their academic potential. Path to College is the way beyond these obstacles for the most overlooked and most over-deserving students.

We are a community of educators, professionals, and community residents who have trudged our own path to college. We help our students reach their academic and personal goals every day, but we want to do more for those students who could benefit from individually centered guidance. We want to invest in the next generation of leaders by helping them trudge the path to college while acquiring as many skills, learning experiences, and chances to give back as possible. We believe that through our community-centered program, we can create waves of positive academic influences for many generations to come.

We have seen many in the current generation of young adults become saddled with student loan debt in the midst of a struggling economy. We have seen young students who, while being smart and motivated, do not believe higher education is in their future because of their family’s economic resources. We want to help the next generation of high school students to avoid the pitfalls of predatory lending and degree programs that aren’t worth their salt.

We believe access to higher education leads to a fuller and richer life, ultimately leading to broader societal advancement. We understand that students from financially insecure households are less likely to pursue the heights of their academic potential, and are often unguided along the sometimes-complicated Path to College. We are committed to providing this much needed guidance and extracurricular investment and are committed to preparing the next generation of scholars, leaders, and entrepreneurs.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Path to College fearlessly clears the path for overlooked students to get into the best colleges and the best education possible. 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.

This changes their lives, it changes their earning potential, and it changes who they are at their core by being exposed to so many amazing concepts in college.

We help students achieve higher SAT scores that will earn them better scholarships, so they stay out of debt and stay in school. We build a community of positivity. Our group of amazing fellows, mentors, and director provide the village of positive support, guidance, and encouragement for these underserved and unguided students along their path. Our students submit applications to more schools and scholarships. This is really the biggest challenge for our students. They aren’t applying to the schools they deserve to go to because, without support, the task seems too daunting.

Our high school students tutor struggling readers at a local elementary school. Our community members mentor our students so that their Path to College is secure. Our program is a multi-level long-term effort to increase extracurricular support in order to uplift and encourage the academic and educational attainment of our neighborhood children.

Path to College pairs highly motivated low-income students with a one-on-one mentor as part of our exclusive academic fellowship program. With the firm belief that low-income students with high academic aspirations need targeted guidance along the path to college, we recruit committed professionals to encourage our students, hold them accountable, and help them achieve their goals. The mentor and student meet once a week for a period of three years. We provide college preparation guidance to our mentors, ongoing training, and require a background check. The mentors are able to schedule meetings with their student on their own time and can arrange to meet the student during lunch at their high school, at a community location after school, on the weekends, or even digitally via video conference.

We also host a series of college prep and SAT workshops and career panels throughout the year.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

There have been so many. I think the key to having a successful non-profit is getting people to join you and work. You can’t do it alone. There’s one person who joined and was a mentor, is a donor, has connected me left and right, and has really dug into the work on every level. There’s so many people like that who just get it and want to help and they don’t want anything in return. They love seeing the results and those people are incredible.

One of our biggest success stories is a student who was born in Haiti in 2001 and came to the U.S. at the age of 7. After her father died, she went to work to help her mother cover rent and food costs. When she was accepted into Path to College’s fellowship, she had a 3.74 GPA and SAT score of 940. Through one-on-one mentoring, career and leadership development workshops, and SAT prep, she increased her SAT score to 1210, achieved the 75% Bright Future Merit Scholarship, and was accepted into University of Florida, Florida State University, University of South Florida, University of North Florida, and Florida Atlantic University. She is now studying International Relations at UF and has a 3.83 GPA. She’ll graduate debt-free in December. This summer, she will be interning in Washington, D.C. at the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Another success story is of a student of our’s who will be attending Harvard University this fall. Before he was president of his senior class, prior to winning first place for his community impact pitch, and long before he gained national recognition by numerous scholarship foundations, he was a bright and talented student living in Venezuela. Every day amidst the violence, corruption, and extreme poverty he lived through, he would sleep with a weapon, doing anything to protect his family. At just 13 years old, his father left his prominent role as an attorney, secretly plotting to help his family escape to the U.S. Four months later, he hugged his grandmother goodbye, not knowing he was leaving his home country forever. He was launched into a new life where the language and cultural barriers both shocked and depressed him. He missed his grandmother the most when sleeping in the small room where his family of four resided in West Palm Beach. He witnessed his father working 12-hour shifts as a pizza delivery man, devastated by the sacrifices his whole family encountered. In school, he was thrown into a classroom where his native language created even more struggles, both academically and socially. He became frustrated at first, but then harnessed that energy into a focused superpower. He carried a dictionary, used translator tools, and asked for extra guidance from his teachers. In his broken English, he volunteered himself for more speaking engagements in order to improve his verbal skills and develop himself further as a leader. In every extracurricular activity that he joined, he would find ways to encourage others and lead service efforts. He shows up, leans in, and continues to put his education first, knowing it is his best shot for fulfilling his dream to rebuild the life his family once had.

Another example is of a young man who joined our academic fellowship his junior year of high school. His desire to make his Haitian family proud leads his daily actions whether it’s helping his eight nieces and nephews with distance learning, working at polling sites on election days, or performing in the band at his community church and school. This past summer, he placed 4th with this Ed-Talk presentation on creating “Mindful Moments with Music” and has since decided to study music therapy while also focusing on pre-health courses to pursue his dreams of becoming a surgeon. During this time at Path to College, we have seen him step up as a leader and advocate for his peers to do their best even amidst the challenges of COVID-19. He has led several live discussions on social media and continues his commitment toward higher learning.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think the root of the problem is just not having the right support system. Some student’s parents are working, are overwhelmed, or just don’t have the know-how, so our approach is to create this mentoring network that comes in and threads the needle between these different villages who may be missing this voice that’s talking about higher education, that’s talking about academic potential and whatnot. We’re here to provide that. We’re here to join the village. Community members can join us as mentors and can donate if they can’t mentor. Politicians can come and help create grants for our program to keep running and create community space that we can use.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is your ability to get other people to do what you think they need to do. It’s to help galvanize movement and I think it has to do with the mission. I think being mission-focused is so important in getting people behind that mission and that’s leadership. Letting people bring their owns tamp to it and their own excellence, which may be different than your’s. Also being able to step back and let other people run the show.

I think as a non-profit founder, there’s this expectation where some people may falsely think that I have to know everything about running a non-profit or about helping kids and it’s like, no, I just have to get the right people in the right places and give everybody that spark of motivation to do it and the work will flow.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

1) It’s very hard. I don’t think it’s for the weak willed. If you’re thinking about starting a non-profit and you’ve kind of started and it’s five years later and nothing has come of it, maybe you should find a non-profit that’s doing the work that you want to do and join them and help them because not everybody has to start their own non-profit. There has to be a need that is not being met before you start a non-profit.

2) Get involved in non-profit work first, which is not what I did, but I am very head-strong and that’s why I’m the type to get a non-profit off the ground.

3) You have to be extremely focused. You cannot let anybody deter you. I had people tell me, “Oh, this work is going to swallow you whole,” and it’s like, you just have to have a mandate, like a personal mandate nd no one will throw you off of it.

4) Fundraising is extremely important to the success of the non-profit.

5) Running a non-profit requires you to constantly be learning and innovating and reaching for excellence in how you manage your clients, your programs, your client data, your evaluation, your grant partnerships. It requires just an absolute commitment to being the best.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to talk to Simon Sinek. I love him. He’s the Start With Why guy and I really follow him and think very similarly to him. I’d love to sit down with him. I’d love to sit down with Brené Brown too, who I also find to be an absolute fearless leader.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that 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 follow you online?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Christine Sylvain of Path to College: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.