Four years ago, I brought you the inspiring story of Richard Jenkins, the Philadelphia teen who got a full ride to Harvard.
Well, Jenkins graduates next month after a four-year stretch in which he says some of the most important lessons he learned were about the harsh realities underpinning many of those feel-good stories we love so much — including his own.
I first met Jenkins in 2018 at Girard College, a full-scholarship private boarding school in Philadelphia for students who come from single-parent families with limited financial resources.
Jenkins had to overcome a lot — homelessness, poverty, taunts from bullies who mocked his studious nature and nicknamed him “Harvard,” of all things. He was the valedictorian of his class and then became part of the roughly 4.6% of 42,729 applicants who were accepted into the Ivy League school the year he applied.
When I called to catch up, I figured we’d talk about his experience at Harvard, and what was next. And we did. But we talked a lot more about those early stories, and inherently flawed bootstrap narratives of being able to accomplish anything with hard work that too often overlook the persistent impact of systemic inequalities.
See, the problem with most bootstrap stories is that they often fail to recognize that not everyone has bootstraps to pull on; some people don’t even have boots. So the idea that success (or failure) is solely the result of personal effort (or lack of) is built upon the assumption that we’re all starting from roughly the same place on a roughly even playing field.
And none of us need a degree from Harvard to know that isn’t true.
“It’s not to say that hard work is not important,” Jenkins said when we spoke last week. “But it’s by no means always the deciding factor between whether I or anyone else will achieve their goals or whatever it is they’re looking for.”
Harvard was what Jenkins had always wanted. But it was “a culture shock,” he said. The student who had gotten straight A’s in high school suddenly found himself on academic probation after some early struggles and ended up questioning everything — from his major in computer science to his long-held belief that he could get through anything with hard work.
Jenkins was “absolutely terrified” of disappointing his family, and the city that had rallied behind him. People had stopped him on the street after seeing him on the news to tell him that they were proud of him, to encourage him to keep going. At one point during that tough first semester, Bill Clinton tweeted: “Richard Jenkins is an example of what’s right with America.”
No pressure there, right?
Eventually, he switched his major to sociology, and it was in those classes — “Global Social Change,” “Political Sociology,” “Work and Culture” — where he not only started seeing the world in a new way but also began taking a different look at his own story.
The exceptional Black young scholar story — his story — wasn’t just incomplete, he realized, it was unfair to other young people like him who possessed the same, if not more, abilities but often nowhere near the same opportunities.
It’s something Jenkins said he had to “reckon” with — and it’s something that all of us who care about questions of equity and access and social justice should be thinking about.
Jenkins was glad for the attention his story received. And now, with one more turn at the mic, he wants to set a few things straight:
“The community raised me up,” he said. “Community got me to Harvard. I didn’t get me to Harvard.”
It was in Philly where he learned how to persevere through adversity, he said, and where teachers and other adults supported him, including those at Mighty Writers, the local nonprofit where I first learned about him.
But not every young person gets that kind of support, especially in a city where even the school superintendent admitted during his testimony in a landmark school-funding trial that students “are really meeting a minimum standard because thatʼs all they had access to.”
Not to mention those whose potential is cut short. “A huge motivator for me to finish was to do it for a couple of people who couldn’t do it themselves,” Jenkins said, specifically his friend Kristian Marche, a young track and field athlete who in 2018 was gunned down just before he headed off to Penn State, and his cousin LaTiya Goff, a Central Penn College student who was killed in a car accident in 2016.
When I relayed our conversation to his favorite teacher at Harvard, Rachel Meyer, a lecturer on sociology, she was not surprised by the introspection exhibited by her former student.
She came to expect, and depend on, Jenkins’ empathetic intellect to connect with other students in the class.
“I honestly felt like I had a co-teacher in the room,” she said.
I could see that. His story remains a lesson for us all. I’ve long cared deeply about whose stories are told, and how they are told. To hear such thoughtful reflections from someone I’ve written about, whose story I now look back on and see ways I could have told better, was both humbling and inspiring.
We shouldn’t stop celebrating the stories of exceptional young people in our communities — they are role models. But we shouldn’t do so without also pointing out what often keeps others from excelling: lack of opportunity, support, access, and more luck than we sometimes want to admit.
When it comes to support, Jenkins’ godfather, Donald Kinsey Jr., is hoping to make sure that’s covered: Kinsey has set up a GoFundMe fund-raiser, as he did when Jenkins started school, to help kick-start Jenkins’ post-graduate life.
And speaking of luck, we are fortunate, Philadelphia: Jenkins is coming back home after graduation, and while he has a 9-to-5 job as a customer account manager at a brand protection company, he also wants to “emphasize voices that have been traditionally and systematically silenced.”
He had his time in the spotlight. Now he wants to do what he can to make sure that light shines on others.