Opening Doors and Reducing Barriers

How FAME expands educational opportunities for African American students through scholarships to attend independent schools, ongoing mentorship to support individual growth, and leadership development opportunities.

Nichelle Nelson / Photo: Ben Filio

For many students and families considering educational opportunities available at independent schools, the combination of tuition costs and cultural differences creates a double divide that leaves many feeling like an independent school education is not an option for them.

The Rev. Dr. Nichelle Nelson is the Chief Programming Officer at FAME (the Fund for the Advancement of Minorities through Education). FAME provides African American students with need-based scholarships and enrichment programs to increase their access to college preparatory education at independent schools in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.

We spoke with Dr. Nelson and visited FAME on a recent Saturday to learn more about their programs and how they’re helping expand access to engaging, relevant, and equitable learning opportunities for African American students in the Pittsburgh region.

Tell us about FAME and your role there.

FAME recognizes that African American students need more than just financial support to be successful in independent school environments, so we developed programming related to the social adjustments and cultural issues those students might face. We are the only nonprofit organization offering tuition and enrichment support for students to attend independent schools.

Primarily, our process begins with the FAME Academy program application when students are in the summer before their 7th grade. We take students through the application process they will go through when applying to an independent high school. After students take some benchmark exams, they begin 6 weeks of summer school that culminates in a week at a boarding school to give those students exposure to that environment. During the school year, FAME Academy students commit to Saturday classes, support and voluntary programming.

Throughout FAME Academy and once a student has been accepted into an independent school and transitions to become a FAME Scholar, they are expected to maintain A’s and B’s. FAME programming topics range from time management to tutorials with students from Carnegie Mellon University, or SAT prep courses with our partners from Princeton Review.  Our goal is for our students to not only get accepted into college but to receive merit scholarships to help them pay for that opportunity. 100% of our scholars from last year met that goal.

My role is to manage our Saturday programs, as well as our STEM programs. We offer a number of different competitive teams for students in elementary, middle, and high school. We have a LEGO robotics team, a Tri-Mathalon team, a 1080 race car team. We travel throughout the country competing in these events.

Students explore STEM learning during FAME’s Saturday program / Photo: Ben Filio

How does FAME engage with the local community?

We have fruitful partnerships with local organizations. For instance, our STEM coordinators are undergraduate engineering students from the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University who are involved with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). FAME has the only pre-college initiative chapter of NSBE in southwestern PA.

Our staff and board work tirelessly for our students and we have liaisons at each school acting as the eyes and ears for our students, advocating not only for FAME students but for other African American students in these environments.

What inspires your work at FAME?

In the past, Pittsburgh was a region that hadn’t been able to retain a lot of qualified African American leaders. Our intent is to build leadership skills in our students and to offer our scholars a chance to advocate for themselves. The students plan their own events and build autonomy and responsibility–they research prices, sell tickets, manage budgets. Our students have organized everything from a formal ball to trips to Cedar Point. Our younger students have even organized outings to Fun Slides Carpet Park. These leadership programs translate to achievements like one of our scholars earning a proclamation from the city recognizing her service in the community and work toward social justice.

How does your work speak to national issues surrounding educational opportunities for minority students?

Minority students or low income students often feel stuck in a public school system they feel isn’t serving them, where the schools are low performing or not challenging. To be candid, many parents are concerned about their child’s emotional and social well being if they enroll in an independent school. Parents worry that going there will make their child feel less about themselves or that they won’t see teachers or administrators who look like them or can relate to their social or economic experiences. That’s a barrier to African American or low income students accessing the opportunities of that school.

We educate the community about what it means to go to an independent school, what that process looks like, and help them make an informed decision about what options are available.

How does FAME’s work align with Remake Learning’s mission to “ignite engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices in support of young people navigating rapid social and technological change?”

We allow for our students to experience opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. We offer a lot more than just money for tuition. For example, some students might struggle to purchase an expensive graphing calculator or participate in a class trip for a global educational experience. We can also support them in taking unpaid internships that we finance to enable them to add experiences to their resumes and make them more competitive applicants for college. For instance, we have a student who interned with Covestro. He did so well there that they created a position for him as he was preparing to go off to Princeton.

Where do FAME scholars enroll after they’ve graduated from high school?

Collaborative learning and leadership development at FAME / Photo: Ben Filio

Our students don’t fit into one category. They attend private and public universities, art schools, small colleges and large universities. We typically have a graduating senior cohort of 10-15 FAME scholars. In 2017, 3 of these are attending Ivy League schools, another 7 are attending schools in Pennsylvania. All of them received merit scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $60,000 per year.

Some of our students attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but others attend schools like Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon. We have alumni all across the country. I believe this comes from early exposure FAME offers to different schools and career professionals. We allow them to think more broadly about what opportunities are available to them.

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