Why We Are Here
An Open Welcome Letter from our CEO
We have all been there: feeling undervalued, ignored, and overlooked. Maybe it was a friend, a teacher, a stranger, or a family member. Perhaps it was because of your position in society, grades, skin color, income, height, birthplace, sexual orientation, ability or disability, language, race, or looks.
In one way or another, youth in Philadelphia know what this is like. We live in the poorest major city in America. Even more disheartening: those aged 18-24 make up the largest percentage of Philadelphians living at or below the poverty line.
Over the past five years, I have seen our city’s youth be sold a well-worn formula. “Go to college and you will be successful,” society tells them. We as a society sell them on this narrative, asking them to take on thousands of dollars of loans. Then, we party at fundraising galas while most of them drop out with debt and no degree and in an arguably worse financial and life position than before.
Since I started CollegeTogether in 2013, more and more Philadelphians are pursing higher education, even as costs and debt loads rise to historic levels. However, graduation rates have remained stagnant and devastatingly low:
- 12% at our city’s largest college
- 8% at a nearby state school
- 17% at a local trade school
We continue to push the same narrative. But we are not getting different results. What is happening is clear: we are undervaluing, ignoring, and overlooking thousands of youth in our city — and millions around the country.
I am tired of this. Our city and country deserve better.
This is why we at CollegeTogether are proud to announce the launch of HospitalityTogether. We are rethinking, redesigning, and redefining higher education — and creating a true and better alternative to traditional college for all who need it.
Today, in traditional college structures, I have met too many students who have to chose between spending money on lunch or a needed textbook, and between a Transpass to get to school or medicine for a sick sibling. I have met too many students who realize that traditional class schedules do not fit their lives; when you need to pick up extra shifts to help your family make rent, or babysit your brother after school so he stays safe, or serve as a caretaker to a family member who cannot afford round-the-clock care, you will always and rightfully put family first. I have met too many students who get tied up by archaic financial aid rules that do nothing but put them in further debt or end their educational journeys before they even begin.
In HospitalityTogether, we provide students with transportation and meal support, as well as connections to a host of mental health, social, dental, and medical services. Students schedule their own academic time with our Learning Advisors and enroll in flexible self-paced edX courses. And the first two years are completely cost free for Learners. In fact, they actually earn income through work placement and advancement. That is a game changer.
Above all, our work is about ensuring that every student knows that they matter and are welcome in our learning community. Our entire leadership team, staff, Credentialing Committee, and board share a belief that the world only makes sense to us if everybody, especially those who have been undervalued, ignored, and overlooked, can achieve and belong somewhere.
Because we have all been there.
I can attest to the struggles of rejection, the never-ending thoughts of imposter syndrome, and the pain of personal insecurities. Our Vice President Judy Ni talks often about starting at the bottom of the restaurant hierarchy pouring water, cleaning toilets, and sweeping floors. She can speak to the struggles of not just starting but especially maintaining a business day in and day out. Any member of our Credentialing Committee will tell you about the mindless hours chopping vegetables, the years in a faraway kitchen somewhere not knowing where your career is going, the never-ending fear of seeing your restaurant fail.
We know what it feels like to be undervalued. We understand the pain of being counted out. But we also grasp how empowering it can be when somebody invites you into a community, affirms that you are loved, and believes in you more than you have ever believed in yourself.
We are confident that HospitalityTogether can be a tremendous workforce program and an engine of economic opportunity for so many. At the center of it all, though, we intend to build an enduring organization where everyone feels value, worth, and a sense of belonging. These feelings are so basic — and yet, they are the foundation of creating a culture where change, progress, and impact are possible.
And so, I welcome you to join us on this journey. Take a moment to learn more about HospitalityTogether. Check out our trailblazing Philly College Team program. If you have a few dollars to spare (I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask!), consider a donation to help us drive this work forward.
Though life is oftentimes a continuous struggle through darkness and doubt, all of us at CollegeTogether are fortunate enough — because of communities and people who found value in us — to live fully today. We want to inspire, empower, and equip others to do the same. This is how we will strive for our Learners. This is the community we intend to build: one where everybody has worth. One where everyone belongs.
With optimism and hope,