"We prepare students to engage in the world that is and to help bring about a world that ought to be."
Naledi Semela '06
“I’ve been inspired to think about access: what are the impediments to equity, who are the gatekeepers, what’s their perspective and how can we complicate or expand it.” Naledi Sean Semela ’06 currently works as the Associate Director of Admissions at Prep for Prep, an education access nonprofit seeking to place promising students of color in independent schools.
In his work, Naledi and his team review 4,000 inquiries each admissions season to craft an incoming Prep class of 200 students. “My job is pretty straightforward in that every year we begin with our talent search. We start every summer with outreach to every single public school, as well as charter and parochial schools in NYC. In addition to academic talent and achievement, we are looking for students who have what it takes to be leaders.” Prep for Prep was founded by Gary Simons in 1978. As pioneers in educational access, they established relationships with public school administrators to nominate top students to compete for coveted spots in the rigorous program. But as they have grown and the market has become more saturated with nonprofits also geared toward providing a path to college for low-income students, their admissions team has had to change their approach. “We’ve pivoted much of our outreach to more directly engage families and community-based organizations. We meet them at block parties, at churches, in their neighborhoods, through other networks. We deliver this message that you’re going to have this amazing opportunity, but you’ll have to make sacrifices -- paying something, commuting into Manhattan. Families might ask, ‘Why are all these things going to be worth it when my kid could test into a specialized high school?’ Recently, the selective public schools have not reflected the diversity of the city. It turns out that an independent school like Friends Seminary is more diverse than any of New York’s specialized schools.”
Prep for Prep has a competitive acceptance rate of five percent. In his work, Naledi is thoughtful in considering how his outreach can still serve those who will not be admitted to the program. “I think and hope our message will still inspire people to try. I get to go into communities every day and say a program like this exists. Hopefully, it can spark something in the minds of students and families. We hear about siblings and even parents going back to school and seeking to improve their circumstances. And so that’s what I really take away. If I look back on a year and I know most of the folks I talked to aren’t admitted, I’m hoping it will still make a difference. If my team gets to touch thousands of lives every year, that’s a huge win for us and worth all the investment.” Students who are admitted will undergo 14 months of rigorous academic training, giving up summers and working extra nights and weekends throughout the school year. “Our hope is they are essentially over-prepared academically. That gives them a chance to navigate some of the other things like new socioeconomic and racial contexts.” Of the students who enroll in Prep and matriculate at an independent school, nearly all will go on to selective colleges.
Naledi is himself an alumnus of Prep and connects with students and families by sharing his own personal journey. “I grew up in Rosedale, I took the bus and train for 1 hour 45 minutes and it was worth every minute.” Naledi is driven to strike a balance in his work between confronting the world that is and bringing about a world that ought to be. “I think about how narrow the path is. And I’ve seen it—how easy it is to slip up and how hard it is to get back. There is not a huge margin of error and my own education journey was fraught with that. There were times I underachieved because I felt the pressure to not take risks—intellectual, spiritual, entrepreneurial. I didn’t have a financial buffer, I didn’t have the same white privilege buffer that some of my colleagues did, and when you’re trying not to make mistakes, you’re also not going to try everything you can to do amazing things.”
Naledi is grounded in the present complexities of public and private education, but never loses sight of a higher vision for what is possible. “If I look at how I ended up at Friends, it’s unlikely. I moved to New York at the right time, met the right person who thought of Prep. The people around me wanted me to succeed. It was a perfect fit for me. But I think about how unlikely it is.” Naledi is a reflective practitioner who considers the paradoxes of educational access with humility and grace. He envisions a future in admissions with an expanded understanding of possibility, success and educational community. “I think we let a lot of these great fits fall through the cracks. In admissions, we think about finding the most flawless record, the highest test scores. Rather, we could consider what’s unique to each person that if they shared it with the world, would make the world better. How can it be unleashed if given space and how well do they fit within the model of the institution? If you could get an institution thinking along those lines, then you could have a very special class.”