As the executive director of the Adams Street Foundation, Charon Darris ’13 is responsible for helping hundreds of students from some of the city’s most under-resourced communities get accepted to college each year. His foundation oversees the college access program for the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a non-charter public high school in Brooklyn where almost three quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. At his school, Darris explains, college preparation begins day one of freshman year. This dedication yields results—90 percent of the students go on to college, with 60 percent enrolling in a four-year college. Darris grew up in Harlem, not far from Columbia’s campus, and took part in the University’s college enrichment program when he was in high school, so when it came time to apply to business school, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. Below, Darris talks about how the Adams Street Foundation helps students navigate college admissions and life beyond, and his own educational journey.
What are the specific steps the Adams Street Foundation takes to help its students get into college?
We provide our students with a robust assortment of services such as preparing for the SAT, counseling on financial aid, coaching on essays, and aligning them with summer study abroad or academic enrichment programs. Our school has approximately 450 students; 75 percent will be the first generation in their families to go to college, so we start early to get students acclimated to college culture. In their sophomore year, we do local college trips and then in their junior year, we take students on overnight college trips upstate. We demystify the college experience. We also have alumni come back to speak with them. It’s one thing to have an older adult share their insight; it’s another thing to have someone a handful of years older than our students talking about their recent experiences.
What do you do to ensure that your students don’t graduate from college with an unmanageable amount of debt?
One of our priorities is to make sure that kids are matched up with schools where they’re going to get close to—if not full—financial aid. What we see with our students who go on to college but don’t finish, is that money is the primary factor in why they don’t finish or have to take time off. But because of our focus on matching students with the right school, we have an 87 percent retention rate for our grads in college after 18 months, which is very good.
With such success, is the Adams Street Foundation expanding to other schools?
Our focus now is expanding to better support our alumni after high school graduation. Often, students need some coaching around course selection, taking enough classes, and taking the right classes. Sometimes we see kids signing up for the hardest courses in their first semester, and then because their grades aren’t good, they end up on academic probation. We also do a lot of coaching around more intangible things, such as making sure students know how and when to advocate for themselves. Sometimes a student will be in a class and think it’s going well, but it’s not, and then at the end of the semester they wind up getting a D. We coach students on the front end to say, "'I'm having a problem. I don't understand this.'" Go to the teacher during the professor’s office hours; make sure you're proactively looking for tutoring and assistance. It’s also important to us to make sure students have a voice in terms of their identity. Our school’s student body is 60 percent African American and 30 percent Latino. Many of the schools where our students enroll are primarily white institutions, so getting them to feel comfortable in those spaces is a necessity. That's stuff that we constantly talk about as well.
How did you come to do this kind of work?
I earned my undergraduate degree at Morehouse College, where I studied business. After graduation, I worked at JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, but always did a lot of volunteer work related to education. I started by mentoring and tutoring, then began serving on boards, helping with fundraising and strategic planning. I eventually decided that I wanted to do that type of work full time.
What drew you to Columbia Business School specifically?
I grew up in Harlem. It was always my dream to attend Columbia. In high school, I participated in the Double Discovery Center programs, which Columbia runs for neighborhood students. Once I was in graduate school, I focused on social enterprise. I took a course with adjunct professor Doug Bauer, executive director of the Clark Foundation, where I got to work on a marketing project for the YMCA and get exposure to the New York city senior leadership team and be part of the conversations while they were undergoing a rebranding. I also took statistics with David Juran, senior lecturer, and find myself using material from his class all the time. Data integrity and analysis are the core of my presentations when I talk about why we make the decisions that we make. I learned how to present data that’s not only buttoned up, but easy to understand.
There are a lot of conversations now about whether a college degree is worth it, given the cost. How do you respond to that?
That’s a question I hear often. A college degree is still incredibly important, especially for a young person who is coming from an underserved community. There are certainly options out there where you don't necessarily have to have a college degree. For example, you could enlist in the military and if you work hard, you can work your way up and probably build a good life for yourself. But, for instance, if you were to go to college and go the officer route, you'd do substantially better in terms of your pay and promotion opportunities. This is an environment where people can easily spend six figures on a college degree. We do not encourage that at all. We spend a lot of time investing in matching students with schools where they will have little to no debt, and where we believe that they're most likely to graduate. Yes, you could go to college and still not have firm footing into your career when you finish. However, the doors and the opportunities without a doubt will be substantially greater with a college degree.