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Embarc’s Imran Khan on Why College Isn’t the Holy Grail

Recently I sat down with Imran Khan, co-founder of Embarc, a nonprofit that partners with 18 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high schools to provide three years of community-based experiential education, or “journeys,” that inspire and prepare students for college and careers through field trips and connecting vulnerable youth with adults who can help them access careers. Talk about an experience that stays with you from doing this work. Lonnie, an Embarc alumus, ended up having kids before he graduated and was their sole caretaker. The jobs he had weren’t cutting it, so he started hustling. Hustling got him two felonies and as a result, he couldn’t go to college because he couldn't get any loans. The chances that he was going to commit crimes again and go back to jail were dramatically high because, at that point, he had no option. But Lonnie didn’t give up. One day, he came to Embarc and said, “I’ve been working at Red Lobster and I don’t want the other life. I want to be here for my kids.” So I thought about ways I could support Lonnie. We ended up sending him to one of our partners, Hogsalt, whom he had experienced through the Embarc program. He started by volunteering because he had the right mindset. And he continued to volunteer, unpaid, and got called back in a month. He was promoted five times in the last two years because of his work ethic and what he’s learned and now has the highest paid position in the back of the house. He’s earning $55,000 a year working for a restaurant. He has a job that he loves and it’s his role right now to help get more Embarc students into those positions. How do you measure success? We look at leading indicators, which are attendance and GPA and then we look at sort of summative indicators, which are going to be high school graduation and college enrollment. We’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about what the alternate metrics of success are because we’re pushing back against the idea of the college-for-all movement. Many people believe everyone should go to college. But educators—principals, people in schools, people working very closely with kids—will say that that’s absolutely not true. There are other progressive post-secondary pathways for students to have far better and more secure careers and break the cycle of poverty within a single year or two after graduating high school. We were at a point where we had a 93 percent college enrollment rate. This year, we dropped that to 87 percent. And actually, we’re hoping to maybe drop that even further. The reason we want it to drop is because we are pushing our students to get into other progressive post-secondary pathways. We have students who are now in welding programs where they’re going to be ready for very highly-sought positions. We have other places where students are going and they’re able to break out of poverty on a much shorter trajectory. Sending kids to college is not the Holy Grail. It’s a story that we’ve been sold, when actually there are many ways that people could be successful. When you look at the 8 percent college graduation rate for Black males and ask why—it’s not only that the post-secondary system is flawed or that high schools are challenged. Universities have a lot of work that needs to be done. They need to be held accountable. Also, college degrees aren’t always what’s in demand. What do you say to people who fear bringing back these post-secondary programs because they feel like schools might push students towards those programs rather than towards college? Historically, the way this was done was that you’d have automotive, woodshop, plumbing and other programs that all the Black and Brown kids would be sent into, while the White kids would be pushed for college. But now you have a college-for-all movement that pushed against that, saying, "It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or Brown. Everybody should go into school." But during that time, universities just got far more expensive. There’s a huge rise in jobs like tech. We’re also seeing a big gap in trades. I think we’re missing the boat. Students should be experiencing what it’s like working for UPS and meeting people there, what it’s like working for Leo Burnett, an advertising agency, what’s it like inside Google, what is it like when they’re at Bit Space creating wood carvings and what’s it like when they’re at Arcelor Mittal, in a steel manufacturing company. Imagine if that were the case. Then the question wouldn’t be, “Should we choose whether or not kids should go to plumbing classes, should go to wood programs or automotive programs?” No. It’s not our choice. We should figure out a way that we can create a system where kids can tell us what they want to be.
An original version of this piece ran on Chicago Unheard as "Embarc Takes Kids Who Have Never Seen the Lake on Journeys that Blow their Minds." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tanesha Peeples
Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and ...

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