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The pursuit of a college education is truly a transformative experience. In the journey towards professional success and opportunity, students often find something unexpected-- themselves. In 2009, during a college trip to Atlanta, Georgia, Jawanza Harris, an Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School alumnus, discovered Clark Atlanta University. For Harris, this college trip was life-changing. “It was like I was seeing color for the very first time,” smiled Harris.

Prior to this trip, Harris envisioned himself studying at Morehouse College, another Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in Atlanta. Growing up he recalls his great uncle telling him, “Jawanza, you’re a Morehouse man.” He was enthralled by the possibility of joining the ranks of Morehouse graduates such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he finally visited the campus he was dismayed. “When we went to Atlanta, I thought, ‘this is my school, I’m going to be a Morehouse man.’ But when I got on the campus, I didn't feel like it was home,” admitted Harris.

As the tour group made their way to Clark Atlanta, Harris’ mind was reeling, he recalls trying to reason with himself about why Morehouse was indeed the school for him. He was shaken from his thoughts when he arrived at Clark Atlanta. When Harris stepped onto the university’s campus, all the doubt and trepidation ceased as he took in his surroundings. He remembers being immediately engrossed in the school’s culture and its students. “Just the way that the students talked about the school, talked about its history. They were gregarious, they were lively. And I was seeing myself in them--a self that I knew to be true but didn't have the opportunities to express myself in those ways yet.”

As a counselor at ASLA, Christiane Bell is all too familiar with the critical role college visits play in the college application process and ultimately, a student’s journey into higher education. “It's pretty amazing, you know, him getting out of LA and going to Georgia to see something different. He really figured out who he was,” said Bell. Harris’ experience is not unique, in her role, Bell exposes students to a plethora of higher education pathways and works with them to identify schools that would best suit their needs. Bell and her colleagues push students to broaden their horizons and look beyond the schools they are most familiar with. “We like to present all options, even among the HBCUs or other private universities. We're just trying to put it on their radar that there are other opportunities, other schools, and areas that you can visit and go to.”

Investing in college trips and other opportunities has helped us expose our students to diverse pathways and career options. Across the network, the students we serve are often the first in their families to attend college. Second or third-generation college students are exposed to college early on and have insider knowledge into the many facets of higher education. This applies to understanding the actual cost of tuition once financial aid is obtained; navigating the college application process; types of colleges and the differences between them; and applying for federal student aid and institutional grants. It’s why our counselors help students and families understand their college options early. They meet regularly with students to help them harness their power to push beyond their limits and pursue their goals fearlessly.

Finding My Way

Attending an HBCU, Harris was amazed by the diversity of black people on campus. “In high school you think black is just one way. It’s like, if you’re not talking a certain way you’re not black enough or you’re not this or that. But at Clark Atlanta, I was surrounded by Black people and they were all different and everybody was praised for their individuality,” said Harris. During this time he saw parallels between the culture at ASLA and Clark Atlanta. “They looked at the individual. They didn’t want to change me, they just wanted to bring the greatest parts of me to the forefront, which is what I was blessed to have at ASLA.”

Harris’ goal to attend Clark Atlanta gave him a strong sense of direction and brought order to his life. But he found that once he achieved this feat, his resolve waned. “I just wanted to get there. I didn't necessarily want to do well there,” admitted Harris. He ended his first semester of college with a 2.4 GPA. Harris quickly realized that if he stayed on this path he would jeopardize his academic future. This GPA also limited his ability to engage in on-campus leadership opportunities. Harris took it as a learning experience, in the spring he established new habits to renew his focus on his school work and sought on-campus support when needed. The next semester, he achieved 3.8 gpa and would go on to become a member Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated and Clark Atlanta University's Student Body Vice President.

In college, Jawanza was inspired by a famous HBCU alumnus, Spike Lee. The famed director attended Morehouse College until he discovered his passion for film in 1977. Shortly after he began taking film classes at Clark Atlanta University to study under the tutelage of Dr. Herbert L. Eichelberger. This led Harris to follow down a similar path. In 2016, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

Now back in Los Angeles, Harris often returns to ASLA to share his story and expose them to the arts. For ASLA educators like Bell, these moments are a reminder of just how impactful their work is. “It was pretty awesome, just seeing him be able to come back and teach some of our students and have them be free to express themselves,” said Bell. “It lets me know that he took what was instilled in him at ASLA and was able to bring it back and share what he has learned, you know, and to show them that you can go to college, you can get a degree.”

Reflecting on his road to college, he’s grateful for his high school and college experiences. At Clark Atlanta, Harris found his passion, learned valuable life skills, grew his network, and most notably he discovered his authentic self. “College is an environment where you get to know who you are and who you’re not, and hopefully you grow to love yourself there,” smiled Harris.

We’re extremely proud of the 19,000-plus Green Dot alumni like Harris. Their perseverance and commitment to fulfilling their dreams fuels our mission. Our alumni’s journeys are a reminder of the transformative power of education and how the pursuit of knowledge can help awaken the greatness within all students.