A college guide improves the odds for disadvantaged students
When he was a high school senior in New Rochelle, New York, just north of New York City, Marvin Thomas knew he wanted to go to college. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he was a smart, motivated student with a perfect GPA and strong SAT scores.
Thomas’ guidance counselor urged him to send applications to public city and state universities. No one in the school encouraged him to consider also applying to a competitive private university, and Thomas didn’t think he had a chance of getting in. He knew little about how higher education worked.
Luckily for Thomas, a family friend urged him to apply to New York University. Now 22, Thomas graduated last year with a B.A. in Finance from the Stern School of Business. By then he understood that his confusing journey to higher education wasn’t unique: Many young people, especially those from lower-income families like his, are ignorant of their options, or lack skills they need to fulfill their potential.
“I grew up in a more than urban neighborhood,” said Thomas, “and seeing some of my friends go to high school and not really understand what the purpose of education was really affected me.”
So during their last year of college, Thomas and fellow student Adrian Grant co-wrote a book to help young people succeed in a competitive world. They formed a business, GT Publishing, and distributed the book themselves, one month after their graduation. In the year since its release. Students of Life: The Compact Guide to Getting the Most Out of Yourself and Your Education has developed a growing readership among urban young people, with support from school principals who are using it to help their students thrive in the college admissions process and beyond.
Shaun Dove, vice president of the New York chapter of MENTOR/National Mentoring Project, has endorsed Students of Life, along with its message that for urban youth and minorities, the way to empowerment is through education.
“We need a voice like Adrian and Marvin’s to say that pursuing the highest of your educational potential is essential,” said Dove.
The straight-talking, 100-page book is written to engross a young audience. It dispenses a torrent of advice for high school and college students, from dressing for success, to managing their education, to strategies for dealing with racism.
Thomas learned some of these lessons from his own family.
“My father always tells me, ‘Knowledge is like having one eye in a blind man’s world,’” said Thomas. “It just puts you in a different perspective.”
His father, Raymond, is a clothing designer who now lives in Orlando with the youngest of Marvin’s three brothers. Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Marvin moved to the Bronx when he was three with his mother, Maxine, a nurse who always worked at least two jobs at once.
Thomas’ oldest brother Gary helped inspire Students of Life. By age 17, Gary had been incarcerated, fathered a baby, and had to drop out of school.
“He’s one of the reasons I wrote the book,” said Thomas. “Because of people I knew who were like him: that would be so smart and intelligent and articulate, but walked down the wrong path because they didn’t see the value” of education.
To get their book’s message out, Thomas and Grant have been giving workshops at Eagle Academy, an all-boys charter high school in the Bronx. Students of Life is now required reading for all juniors at Brooklyn Academy of Science and Environment. And the coauthors have taken their coaching sessions on the road to high schools and colleges in Illinois and Wisconsin, working through government programs like Upward Bound.
It was at one of those speaking engagements that Jessica Sobhrha, a senior at Jamaica High School in Queens, was introduced to Students of Life. Sobhrha found the sections of the book that were specifically directed toward helping minorities overcome obstacles—or as the book puts it, “overstand the system”—to be especially helpful to her.
“It’s full of so much material that anyone can use and interpret in their own way to make themselves more productive,” said Sobhrha.
Daniel Menard, a senior at Rice High School in Harlem, said Students of Life changed the way he approached his education and his future.
“I used to do what it takes to just pass, or to just get by,” said Menard, “but the book does tell you to do more, because there are definitely a few things against you…. You’re in America—there’s competition. And if you want to be on top, you’ve got to take that extra step. You have to fight for your dreams no matter what.”
Thomas and Grant plan to publish another volume this spring, and they’re shopping Students of Life to publishers. Thomas hopes one of them see the book’s appeal for a broader readership.
“Rarely does a student get to speak to another student in a way that they can appreciate, in a way that is practical and useful,” said Thomas. “That’s what I really wanted to be able to bring to someone who came from anywhere, and just wanted to think about college: What its purpose was, what they’re really going to get out of it, and how they can really navigate the system.”
Photo Courtesy of GT Books LLC.
CAPTION: Indignant that his high school guidance counselors seemed to be pushing him toward lesser colleges, Marvin Thomas and a friend wrote a book meant to help disadvantaged students manage their educations, and fight racism.