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College Access Blog


Our Founder, Danny Tejada, gives a speech entitled "Progress is Scary" at Skidmore College's 2023 Stoles & Cords Ceremony for BIPOC and LGBTQ graduates. This is a special ceremony where BIPOC and LGBTQ students are celebrated for graduating from Skidmore. They are given stoles and cords that represent their identity to wear at the larger graduation. Below are his prepared remarks.

Progress Can Be Scary

How many of you were scared coming to Skidmore?

How many of you experienced culture shock here?

How many of you were counting the days until graduation?

How many of you had meaningful experiences here?

All of us experienced Skidmore in different ways. This is what I say to my students about any college. I tell them that you have to take risks in life to achieve greatness. What I haven’t told them is that progress can be scary.

Growing up in “humble” beginnings can make progress scary. Racist experiences can make progress scary. I grew up in a bubble called New York City. It’s a bubble because you can see the same people on the train every day and never interact with them. It’s a bubble because you are racially segregated by neighborhood and school. It’s a bubble because everyone doesn’t have equal access to information.

College wasn’t talked about in my home. I didn’t know college existed until ninth grade when two people from Pace University’s Upward Bound program presented their program in my English class. That moment is when my life changed forever. I had the time of my life in the program. I learned a lot about college admissions from it. It was here where I could point to the first time I felt scared of progress.

I was excited about the idea of going away to college. But I was afraid of what would happen to my family. I was the oldest who protected my siblings and mother from my alcoholic father in our public housing unit, barely getting by on public assistance. I was afraid because my father’s side of the family didn’t support my decision to go away to college. They thought it was too expensive and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it socially. They weren’t interested in hearing about how financial aid worked or what HEOP was.

I was afraid when my college counselor asked me if I was applying Early Decision to Skidmore. But I pushed through all of that fear, even though I felt alone. I came to HEOP Summer alone. I mostly kept to myself the whole time. I didn’t call home. No one from home checked on me. I wish someone prepared me for the fact that progress can be lonely.

When the school year started, I still felt alone. I was on WSPN, a mixtape DJ, Hip Hop journalist, founded Hip Hop Alliance, and was in a relationship. Despite all of that, I was still lonely. Mentors such as Professor Grady-Willis helped give me some purpose in life. From there, I discovered that I wanted to be a college counselor. But I hit a roadblock. I wasn’t hired in the field for four years after I graduated.

While I had no debt, progress led me back to the projects with my father. The progress I made still made me scared of my father. That progress made his target on me bigger. That were parts of me that regretted the progress I made. This was a feeling I was going to have a few times in my life. Sometimes, I felt that life on public assistance in the projects was better than what I was experiencing.

Then, I got my first full-time job doing Medicaid enrollment. I finally had the chance to move out of my parents’ house. I was blessed to find a $750-a-month studio apartment near the L train. This was the first time that progress started to feel good. I was making some money that my parents couldn’t imagine, no matter how little it actually was. I was helping my community. I was happy with everything I had.

Things got even better when I became a college counselor. I was now just like the man I considered a hero. I even got to work alongside him in my first role. I got into another serious relationship that lasted a couple of years. I had a habit of fully investing myself in my woman’s progress. But just like the one from college, they were gone once they achieved a certain goal. The feeling of being underappreciated by partners made me want to dig deeper into my career.

The progress I made in my career has been fulfilling: from where students get into to the connections I was making. I was happy to be appreciated. This was progress I loved. But it came at a price. My personal life was nonexistent because I was answering student emails, reading about college admissions, and engaging with people online about it during my off time. Being a college counselor was my identity, and I wanted to be the best one by any means.

Then came along my fiancée. It was another situation where I was fully invested. But this time, I got the same energy back. I finally left NYC because of her. It was something I always talked about. I worked at a private high school because of her. I created my consulting business because of her. I started to focus on my personal life because of her. For the first time, I actually felt like I had a partner. I finally felt like I could have the family I always wanted.

But with all of those changes, progress became scary again. I was achieving much more quickly than I could sit and enjoy. I was also taking on more responsibilities at home. Society doesn’t prepare you for these things. Growing up, I was used to keeping my feelings inside. So I continued that old habit, which I’m still working on.

Moving back to NYC was something I didn’t think I would do. Trying to settle down was something I didn’t think I would do. Making six figures was never a thought in my mind. Progress is scary. These are the things people don’t prepare you for. They also don’t prepare you for when things don’t work out.

Traveling on three transit systems to get to work is tough. Being in meetings all day is tough. Having your partner start working full-time again after three years of graduate school is tough. Going home to do more work is tough. Progress is scary. At least this time, I wasn’t alone. She created a safe space for me to slow down and readjust. She made it okay for us to work things out.

Her encouragement of me to develop my private life was scary. It’s hard to hear constructive criticism when you have lived the life I had. But I know she means well. Progress can be scary. But it’s a great thing. It doesn’t have to be done alone. Slowing down and making time for the things and people you love is also okay. Enjoy your progress.

Below is a letter our Founder, Danny Tejada, wrote in response to a New York Times op-ed about the SAT.

To the Editor:

The Opinion piece entitled "Can the Meritocracy Survive Without the SAT?" is an excellent picture of what's wrong with mainstream media reporting on college admissions. Outlets like yours often publish people who don't have any experience in the field. Pieces like the one Ross Douthat wrote creates a lot of confusion, anger and drum up racism against Black and Brown students who earned their spots at selective colleges by sharing misinformation and lies.

Douthat says the reason why colleges are "ditching the SAT" is because "Asian American SAT scores rose to the point where elite colleges were accused of discriminating against Asian American applicants to maintain the racial balance they desired, this led to lawsuits, and those lawsuits seem poised to yield a Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action." This is flat-out false. Did he forget that schools were closed in 2020 due to COVID? Most students in America couldn't test for the SAT or the ACT. The few who were able to were likely to get COVID. You also had a few wealthy enough to travel to distant states to sit for the exam. This is why most colleges went test optional.

When high schools opened for testing, most colleges stayed test optional because they saw an increase in applications, which allowed them to achieve record-low acceptance rates. These acceptance rates and inflated test score averages can improve their US News and World Report rankings and increase their bond rating on Wall Street. An improved bond rating allows colleges to borrow more money to improve their facilities and attract more wealthy students. In addition, schools like Columbia (which has gone test optional permanently and wasn't reported by your outlet) find that test optional students are thriving on campus compared to their test-submitting peers.

Douthat says the link between income and SAT scores isn't as tight as people suggest. This goes against College Boards' 2022 Total Group SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report. In the report, you will see that most test takers come from the highest-income households. You will also see considerable gaps in average scores between income. The highest-income students scored 247 points more on average than the lowest-income students. ACT's report from 2022 shows significant gaps in average scores as well. In the report, most test takers come from the highest-income households. The highest-income students scored 7.9 points more on average than the lowest-income students (this gap is more significant than the SAT gap when you convert).

The article Douthat cites says that test optional policies do not increase racial diversity is false. The report says there was a "10% to 12% increase in first-time students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds." This is significant. Every study I have seen (including one from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling from 2018) has proven that test optional policies increase racial and income diversity on college campuses. Test optional policies are only as good as the people making the decisions.

Being a college counselor for over ten years, I know that the SAT and ACT can't measure passion, drive, and resourcefulness. I have seen many test optional students from all racial and income backgrounds succeed at test optional schools. Thanks to New York State's Opportunity Programs, I have seen students with low test scores get a chance at college and succeed, including myself. These students go on to contribute to our society and economy as they climb the social mobility ladder. These are things a test score can't predict.

Later this month, our Founder, Danny Tejada, will speak at Skidmore College's Office of Student Diversity Programs' Stoles & Cords Ceremony. He graduated from Skidmore in 2009. This upcoming speech reminded him of the Keynote Speech he gave at George Westinghouse High School’s graduation in 2013. We wanted to share with you the video and text as prepared. During this time, Mr. Tejada had just started his college counseling career. He graduated from the high school in 2005.

At the time of the speech, Mr. Tejada said, "This is the most important, greatest, and shortest speech I’ve given so far. I’m so thankful and honored for the opportunity. Eight years ago, I never thought I would be where I am today. I’m so glad that I got to see my former guidance counselor and favorite teacher. This speech was two months in the making. With the mindset of what I would like to know in high school that I know now, I wrote the first draft the night that I heard I was selected. I revised and practiced it since then." The full text:

Beating the odds may seem like a strange concept at first. But, it is indeed a phrase with a powerful meaning. It means to overcome a challenge or struggle. Believe it or not, all of us have odds we must overcome.

I grew up in a home where my parents fought each other very often. I grew up in a home where my parents were more focused on their packs of beer than my education and doings. I grew up in a home where I didn’t let myself be full, so my siblings can be full. Since my parents weren’t invested in my siblings, I had to be there for them too. While going to Westinghouse, I realized that the life of being on Public Assistance and living in the projects in East New York isn’t a good life at all. Being in Pace University’s Upward Bound Program in the tenth grade made me realize that education was my only way out.
Upon graduating Westinghouse, where I saw half of my class disappear since the ninth grade, I got into Skidmore College’s Higher Education Opportunity Program. At Skidmore, I’ve seen how things were better on the other side. I developed leadership skills in creating a Hip Hop Culture club called Hip Hop Alliance, where we talked about racism, sexism, and homophobia and successfully pushed for a Hip Hop Culture class. I learned more about myself, new heroes and poverty in my major American Studies. I met two mentors in college who pushed me to give back even more.
Listening to them, I became a mentor to two middle school students who were Hispanic. After I graduated from college, without loans, I became a mentor to a Black high school student. In being a mentor to these boys, I shared my life story and knowledge of the world with them. From there, I started teaching activism classes in the same Upward Bound Program I was in. I also became the co-chair of the Youth Ministry at my church in East New York.
In doing all of this, I started speaking to young people like you about progressing in the world and the evils of poverty at various events. At the same time, I came out with a book with my recent mentee promoting mentoring and giving advice to young people called Different Families, Still Brothers. Now, I help students like you get into colleges like Skidmore for Pace University’s Liberty Partnerships Program at the High School of Economics and Finance.
Want to know the crazy part of my story? When I went to Westinghouse, I couldn’t speak at all. I stuttered a lot. Barely anyone understood me. I was shy. This struggle made me cry at night. I started to come out of my shyness when I volunteered in various things like Open School Night and founded a Video Game Club where I put on tournaments. I fully came out of my shell in college with the encouragement of my best friend Mike Thomas. I was never able to express my story verbally into I took acting classes and hosted a radio show in college. Now, the boy who was scared to talk to people is helping people get to the next level. Now, the boy who thought he didn’t have a voice is showing you how golden his voice is.
All of you graduates have beaten a set of odds, but I’m here to tell you all that this is just the beginning. You are going to be beating the odds all your life, from college to graduate school to career to raising a family. The toughest obstacle to overcome is your own self. There will be times where you will ask yourself: “why me?” There will be times where you ask yourself: “what’s the point?” There will be times where you feel like giving up. But, you must remember these words President Obama once said, “Being defeated is a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”
We are our worst enemy. We must fight ourselves. It can be done. If you have a dream, believe in yourself, work hard towards making that dream a reality, you will achieve it. Muhammad Ali once said, “Even the greatest have to suffer sometime.” All of you are great, indeed. Don’t let your suffering ever stop you. Let it push you to new heights!
And when you reach those heights, don’t forget when you came from. Don’t forget that there are brothers and sisters who suffer the same things you have suffered. The point of life is not to become rich. Becoming rich creates a sense of selfishness for most people. You can’t take it all with you when you pass away. It won’t bring you happiness.
The point of life is to overcome the odds and build others up to do the same. This is what will bring you happiness. This will bring a sense of fulfillment in your life.
You never know, one day you can be up here speaking to your alma mater too. If there is anything I can help you with, feel free to reach out to me. I wish you all the best in whatever you do. Stay strong. Keep it pushing. Peace be on to you all, brothers and sisters. God bless!
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