Partnership between Penn State, Philadelphia Futures yields years of success

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- La’Quan Williams’ clearly saw his academic mission from a young age: work hard and get a full scholarship to college.

With tuition financially out of reach for his family, he excelled in the classroom, got a scholarship and is now set to graduate next year from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in public relations. A turning point in his quest, he said, came in the ninth-grade with Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit with a long history of preparing low-income high school students for college.

“I felt I was breezing through with the knowledge that I already had,” he said. “Philadelphia Futures, to me, was high school. The work and the challenges they presented for me were much more challenging than my actual school work.”

Penn State is one of six institutions of higher education partnering with Philadelphia Futures, and 73 Philadelphia Futures students have received degrees from the University since 1994. Penn State is being honored for its contributions June 6 during the organization’s Graduation Celebration at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.

Joshua Daniel
 and La’Quan Williams

Joshua Daniel
, left, and La’Quan Williams have benefited from the partnership between Penn State and Philadelphia Futures. 

Image: Penn State

The organization’s mission is to “provide low-income, first generation-to-college students with the tools, resources and opportunities necessary for admission to and success in college.” Its centerpiece program is Sponsor-A-Scholar (SAS), which immerses a student in “college-going culture” through the likes of mentorships, after-school classes, summer programs at universities, SAT preparation courses and campus visits.

"Penn State has worked with Philadelphia Futures as true partners to remove the many obstacles that confront the organization’s students on the path to a college degree," said Executive Director Joan Mazzotti. "The University has made a commitment to educational equity and the academic advancement of low-income, first-generation-to-college students.”

Since 2002, Penn State has partnered with the Brook J. Lenfest Foundation, which provides full, need-based scholarships to students from Philadelphia. So far, 57 SAS students from Philadelphia Futures -- like Williams -- have been Lenfest Scholars at Penn State.

He is one of 38 Philadelphia Futures students currently enrolled at Penn State. It was during a summer program at Drexel University when he realized his knack for dealing with the public after delivering final remarks to a packed auditorium under the glare of the media.

“I had no idea of the news cameras in the room, I'm just a freshman and I'm speaking into news cameras,” he said. “That did something to me.”

Philadelphia Futures’ summer programs at Drexel and other universities in the city introduce students to the college life, and Williams said he entered Penn State with solid studying skills and confidence as a result.

“I got used to writing four pages every morning,” he said. “This was something I was already used to. So (now) you tell me I got a four page paper, I'm like ‘Really? Lets do 10.’”

According to Philadelphia Futures, 36 percent of public high school students in the city enroll in college, but only 10 percent earn a post-secondary degree. Eight of 10 students in Philadelphia live in poverty and graduation rates are around 50 percent. Since its start in 1990, nearly 900 students have completed the high school portion of the Sponsor-A-Scholar program, 98 percent of them went on to college.

Philadelphia Futures is recognizing the University with its Hats Off to You Award and also individually honoring Diane Farnsworth, assistant director and counselor in Penn State’s Multicultural Resource Center and adviser of the Lenfest Scholar Program. Williams called her “amazing to me since Day 1.”

“I think the world of the organization,” Farnsworth said. “I feel their passion and when you can sense that people are in their positions in life because of what feeds their heart and soul rather than the paycheck, it’s a good place to be.”

Philadelphia Futures students approach college with professionalism, according to Farnsworth, and are knowledgeable about the resources available to them on campus. 

“You can tell these students have not taken anything for granted,” she said. “They are very respectful. That is huge when you are first getting to know somebody. They call me Ms. Diane, they listen very effectively, they know not to be fiddling with their iPhone when they're talking to me or coming in with their ear buds in. They have those finer quality's that are very small when looked at individually but as a whole represent a class act.”

"She was really open,” said Joshua Daniel, who graduated from Penn State in 2012 as a Lenfest Scholar. “You could have any sort of conversation with her. You knew if you needed help, you could just email her or stop by her office."

For Daniel, Philadelphia Futures was a guiding force from high school through college and into the job market. He earned a bachelor's degree in recreation, park and tourism management, and now works for a nonprofit that helps children and adults with special needs. Daniel’s Haitian immigrant parents, he said, beamed with pride when he earned his diploma.

"It was as though they accomplished something watching me graduating college," he said.

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Last Updated June 03, 2013