James Cole is the nation’s deputy secretary of education, but long before he was a dignitary working with President Obama on new initiatives, he was a kid from Englewood.

Cole’s 10th grade year at Dunbar was a tough one. He had just lost his mother just months before he was robbed at gunpoint the August before the school year started. But it was an important mentor who pulled him through those tough times and pushed him to become the first in his family to graduate from college.

“Ms. Schmidt, my 10th grade teacher here at Dunbar, was a mentor to me,” he said. “And if it weren’t for her, I for sure wouldn’t have gone to the University of Illinois. Life would have turned out in a very different kind of way.”

If it weren’t for her, I for sure wouldn’t have gone to the University of Illinois. Life would have turned out in a very different kind of way.

Cole’s teacher insisted that he go visit the University of Illinois. She sent him down to the Champaign-Urbana campus to stay with her own son, who was studying there.

“That was the game-changer,” Cole said. “It was one thing to hear her talk about statistics and people graduating, but it was another to go to down there, stay in a dorm room, attend a basketball game, and talk to her son about what it’s like to be there. Actually experiencing the campus is what made the difference. That sealed the deal for me because it became real.”

Schmidt and her influence changed the course of Cole’s life. It’s why he personally knows the essential role that mentors play and works to encourage more mentors to get involved with the youth that need them. He oversees the U.S. Department of Education’s work on Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which is an initiative to help boys and young men of color reach their full potential.

My Brother’s Keeper currently has over 250 local communities across the country that are dedicated to this goal and after two years, 80 percent of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented. In addition to working on federal policy initiatives and grant program to help children from “cradle to career,” the program has received more than $600 million in grants and resources so far.

“I’m really excited about all of the work that the Obama administration has done to increase opportunities, especially for all young men of color,” he said. “We have My Brother’s Keeper, which really tries to give opportunities to kids, and I think that there are just so many more opportunities than we realize. Talking about what opportunities are available is something I’m really excited to do and is something I didn’t know as much about when I was in school.”

james-cole-at-dunbar

Cole came back to Chicago Sept. 14 and visited Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, his high school alma mater, to tour its newly launched career and technical skills programs.

“It brings back great memories about my time here at Dunbar, going through the vocational programs, and talking to many of the kids who are excited about post-secondary opportunities,” Cole said.  “So, it’s been very exciting to come back. It’s been very personally rewarding to share, talk about opportunities and to share inspiration. I’ve had a great time interacting with the students and teachers here.”

Although it’s been 30 years since Cole walked Dunbar’s hallways as a student, some essentials are the same.

“What’s still the same is that there’s a need to talk about opportunities for the kids and different things that they can do to prepare for life after high school, the importance of graduating, the importance of post-secondary training, whether it’s in a certificate, two-year, or four-year degree,” Cole said. “Communicating what their goals and aspirations should be after Dunbar continues to be important.”

Communicating what their goals and aspirations should be after Dunbar continues to be important.

In a private session with students, Cole talked about access to college, its affordability, and how to make the decision of where to go.

“The main goal was to communicate to students next steps between now and college,” Cole said. “I talked a lot about FAFSA and the fact that we have $150 billion a year that we give in grants or loans from the federal level that’s all need-based. Many times, our students feel like they can’t go to college because they can’t afford it.”

Cole also introduced students to the College Scorecard — an online tool that students can use to compare potential schools.

“College is a decision, so I talked a lot about our college scorecard, which is great because you can pull it up on your smartphone,” Cole said. “They can put in the schools they want to attend, or the programs that they want to study, to get information to compare colleges and find one that best fits their needs. Whether it’s the cost, graduation rate, percentage of kids that actually graduate, or what the average earnings are, it gives them the opportunity to have an interactive experience.”

Dunbar’s new technical programs include advanced construction, electrical, welding, and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). They are aligned with the school’s historic roots as a trade school and help students who seek alternative options to traditional college studies.

Cole says that it’s important to let students know all of their career options so that they can find a path to success that works for them.

“It often felt like I [was trying to] squeeze into that narrow line of opportunity and do everything I could to get into a certain track,” Cole said. “But what I know now that I didn’t know then is that [the track to success] it’s incredibly wide. There are lots of opportunities. All we have to do is our part: work hard, pay attention, get good grades. It’s not a sliver of hope, there is a lot of hope and opportunity.”

Mentors can help students find and take advantage of that opportunity. Cole says the evidence shows that students who have a mentor in their lives perform better in school, are more likely to go to college, and are more likely to graduate from college. The gift of mentorship is a priceless one.

“The difference you can make in a child’s life can’t even be measured,” Cole said. “A mentor is often the difference between kids who go to college and complete it, and those who don’t. Mentors can really be a complete change-maker in a kid’s life.”

Individuals and businesses who want to be involved in helping youth live up to their potential can connect with a local My Brother’s Keeper community by visiting whitehouse.gov/mbk.

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