Grinnell student group creating keen awareness about college for middle schoolers

May 18, 2022 — When Jazmin Richardson ’23 was a high school student thinking about attending college, she didn’t look farther than the institution down the street from her home in Topeka, Kansas. 

“I knew I’d go to college, but I didn’t know a thing about prestigious colleges,” says Richardson. She eventually learned about Grinnell College and other schools through a program called Matriculate that matched her with a college student from Princeton, who encouraged her to think about schools beyond her hometown. 

Richardson applied to be a QuestBridge scholar, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting high achieving, underserved high school students with educational opportunities at some of the most prestigious U.S. colleges. She was named a QuestBridge finalist and accepted to Grinnell. Three years later, Richardson serves as the 2023 class representative for the Grinnell chapter of the QuestBridge Scholar’s Network.

Students ff The Keen One Project take a group photo on campus. Pictured, left to right, are Sneha Lohani ‘23, Sarah Oide ‘23, Andrea Suazo ’24, Hyein Cho ‘23, Sonia Benitez ‘23, Jazmin Richardson ‘23, Oluwatobi (Jemzy) Alabi ‘24, and David Hudson '23.
Students taking part of The Keen Ones Project take a group photo on campus. Pictured, left to right, are Sneha Lohani ’23, Sarah Oide ’23, Andrea Suazo ’24, Hyein Cho ’23, Sonia Benitez ’23, Jazmin Richardson ’23, Oluwatobi (Jemzy) Alabi ’24, and David Hudson ’23.

“Neither of my parents went to college and virtually none of my extended family went, so it was really amazing learning that these schools existed,” says the sociology major, who is also earning her secondary teaching certificate. “I went to Topeka public schools and my high school was under-resourced. Violence, which is also a product of less resources, inhibits the opportunities we are afforded in Topeka.”

When she returned to Grinnell after her first fall break, Richardson decided to take some action, and The Keen Ones Project was born. 

“I was talking with my roommate and friends, brainstorming what we can do to bring awareness about prestigious colleges (like Grinnell) to communities like mine,” Richardson says. “We were also talking about honors and AP classes at public schools, and how so many students who are not tracked into these courses aren’t given the resources to be competitive applicants at prestigious schools. We decided we had to start at the middle school level.”

In February 2020, Richardson, along with her roommate, Sneha Lohani ’23, and fellow Grinnell students Sarah Oide ’23, Hyein Cho ’23, Anna Perdue ’23, Sonia Benitez ’23, David Hudson ’23, and Loyal Terry ’23 decided to pilot a summer mentoring program for middle school students across the nation. They were later joined by Oluwatobi Jemzy Alabi ’24, Andrea Suazo ’24, and Ganga Prakash ’25. The goal was to get middle schoolers introduced to the world of prestigious higher education that they may otherwise be systemically excluded from. However, the pandemic hit, and the group continued working online, creating materials for the project. Last summer, Richardson and Lohani piloted the program at the Boys and Girls Club of Topeka Teen Center.

Each student created an art, photography, writing or other project. They talked about colleges and values, equity and inequity, what they want to be when they grow up, and how to finish K-12 in a position where they would be given agency in deciding what they want to do with their life. Students also began researching colleges and building a personalized college list. 

Jazmin Richardson '23
    Jazmin Richardson ’23

“The workbook we created has lots of activities based on our research in collaboration with professors in the education and sociology departments,” explains Richardson. “We had so much fun and built amazing relationships with the kids from the Boys and Girls Club.”

This academic year, Richardson and fellow Grinnellians completed a similar workbook that will be given to low-income Grinnell middle schoolers to complete on their own this summer. Once completed, students will receive a goodie bag with fun school supplies, treats, and gift cards for ice cream. Next fall, The Keen Ones Project hopes to partner in-person with a local afterschool program and Grinnell Middle School. 

“With this project, we dedicate a few hours a week and amazing things happen,” Richardson says.

Richardson, who plans on earning her master’s degree in education after graduation, spent time this year observing classrooms and working with students in the middle and high school in Grinnell. Next fall, she’ll student teach at Grinnell Middle School. 

“I’ve always seen myself being a teacher,” she says. “Ideally one day I’ll return to my city and teach, because that’s what’s close to my heart. Teaching is hard, but it’s important.” 

— by Anne Stein ’84

For your information:

For more information on The Keen Ones Project, visit the organization’s Facebook page

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