These Chicago Twins Have Some Advice for First-Generation College Hopefuls

Fraternal twins Kemonte and Kymon Harrington are members of the first graduating class of the Noble Network of Charter Schools’ Hansberry College Prep in Chicago. Kemonte applied to 13 colleges and universities; Kymon, seven. Together, they were awarded more than $3 million in scholarships and financial aid. This fall, Kemonte will start college at the University of Pennsylvania and his sister Kymon will attend nearby Haverford College. The twins credit their mother, Kimberly Richardson, for instilling them with the drive to learn and achieve to their highest potential. And they credit Hansberry, an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, with providing the curriculum and support they needed to make their college dreams come true. Kemonte and Kymon spoke with me shortly before their high school graduation. (Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.) Talk to me about your early life and school experiences. What happened then to inspire you academically? Kymon: Our mom told us from first grade, “You’re going to college.” When it was her time to go to college, she stayed back to look after her grandmother. At the time, she did something that was even more important. But that really motivated her to want us to go to college since she didn’t have the opportunity. Even if the school didn’t push it, she did. She used to take us to work with her when she was mentoring high school students. They would talk about college. The message [to us] was very clear: You have to go to college; you have to bring home A's. She made sure all the school projects were done on time and with quality. In elementary school, I always did my work. It would be a rare occasion for me not to do my homework. It would be rare if I got a C or below on a test. Kemonte: She was more on us when we first started school. Over time, it became an unspoken rule that you should do well in school. I was really interested in history, especially the history of the Civil Rights era. I liked learning about influential people in the world—I got really into the history books. When you first started at Hansberry, how did you feel about it? How did your experiences and feelings change over time? Kymon: I was excited about being in the first graduating class. What I wasn’t excited about was when I got that rulebook. It was extensive and I wasn’t prepared. I had never heard of the demerit system before. You learned about the demerits when you got them or when other people got them. At the beginning of freshman year, I was determined to keep my mouth shut. I wanted to stay under the radar and stay out of trouble. I didn’t really get demerits. I had heard about college at home, but this was the first school where I heard about college. [pullquote position="left"]They said that everyone in the school was going to college for sure. It would take a lot of hard work. They set class-wide GPA goals, usually a 2.8. We took standardized tests once a quarter. I didn’t really see the point of the tests at first. I thought they just wanted to see where we were. I didn’t know they were preparing us for the ACT. A lot of people got sick of taking the test and stopped trying, but I kept trying my best so I could get an accurate read on how I was doing. Kemonte: I was worried I could get in trouble for the smallest of things, but I was pretty excited about getting a whole new start. In elementary school I didn’t really like it; I wasn’t learning much. My grades were good but I didn’t feel challenged. I didn’t get along with that many kids. I just wanted to start fresh in high school. When I first came in I wasn’t one of the highest scorers on standardized tests, but by the end of freshman year I was. I believe the reason I came in not really [scoring] high was that elementary school didn’t really prepare me enough. Once the curriculum was given to me, my work ethic really helped me pull up. My interest was in getting really rigorous college level work early so I would know how to deal with it and not drop out. International Baccalaureate is a really good program and it gave me exactly that kind of experience. How did Hansberry help you get a feel for college life? Kymon: Sophomore year was when we got to do Summer of a Lifetime. I went to Penn State University and took psychology and an acting class. It’s a big volleyball school. For a lot of my time outside of class, I played volleyball on the court outside the dorm with college students. They didn’t know I was still in high school. That experience made me learn a lot about money management. I didn’t blow all my money, but I ate my way through it and went home broke. Kemonte: I did my Summer of a Lifetime at UCLA. Most Hansberry kids got to go to a college with others from the school, but me and two other kids, we went alone. It was hard when you first got there. It was really hard to make friends initially. But it got you out of your comfort zone and to seek meeting new people. I really loved the campus. At the time it was my dream school, mostly because it was in L.A. I loved having the freedom to go around and see what L.A. was. The campus is near Westwood and there was a lot of stuff going on. How did Hansberry support your college search? Kemonte: I would say “the Bot” was really accurate for me. It’s the tracking system Noble uses to analyze students’ chances for getting into each college. [The Bot uses acceptance rates for previous Noble applicants to predict a student’s chances of acceptance and also tracks each college’s six-year graduation rates for minority students.] You put in your name, test scores and GPA, and it gives you a list of schools in your range. For me, it had a lot of good schools I had heard of but didn’t know much about. Kymon: I had other ideas. I had a lot of help from Chicago Scholars and my college counselor at Hansberry. My college counselors from both places put schools on the map based on what they thought I would like. I did research. Our crazy time was mostly August and September because Chicago Scholars had us apply before October 1. Any advice for other high school students who could be first in their families to attend college? Kymon: Visiting schools is very important. If I hadn’t visited schools, I probably wouldn’t be at Haverford. Making your college decision shouldn’t be about what everybody else thinks. It should be about you. It’s the next four years of your life. Kemonte: My first college visit was at Penn for three days. I think it really set the bar high for the other schools. I noticed how many opportunities I would get if I went to Wharton. People talked to us about the internships they got just from the name Wharton. In the end, financial aid awards made it really easy for me to make my decision. Penn is one of those schools that gives you all scholarship aid, no loans. They have the resources. Your high school choice is very important in preparing for college. Because of the demerit system, a lot of people left Hansberry and went to other schools. When I see kids who had the same potential as me not getting into as many schools as I did, I know it’s not them. It’s their schools not preparing them for the ACT, and their counselors not working with them the way ours did. Our counselors, Chicago Scholars, Summer of a Lifetime—all those things contributed in some facet to us getting into college.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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