On Point for College: Changing lives of SCSD students

On Point for College, a local not-for-profit organization, works to help Syracuse City School District students get to college and find careers.

Syracuse was ranked the 29th poorest city in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau last year, but a dedicated group is working to help more students attend college, find better careers and improve the city.

On Point for College, a local not-for-profit organization, prepared more than 300 Syracuse City School District students for orientation this summer, providing them with school supplies and college guidance. Roughly 70 percent of donations come from individuals, but On Point recently received an extra boost.

Photo: Christine Oser
Nicole Burnett, College and Career Access Advisor at On Point.

On June 19, New York Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi announced On Point would receive $400,000 in the 2017-18 state budget. This money will help buy backpacks full of school supplies, dorm room necessities, help with rent deposits and buy each student $150 worth of clothes from Destiny USA.

“It is a unique program that serves many young people in the Mohawk Valley, and I am pleased to have secured funding so it can continue,” Brindisi said in a statement.

In fact, some advisors preparing students this summer were once receiving guidance from On Point themselves.

Nicole Burnett, Brian Greene and James Deng all serve as college and career access advisors. For them, coming back to On Point after graduating was no question.

Ginny Donohue was a chief financial operator for a company in the 1990s when she quit that position to start On Point. After helping a young homeless man get into college at her daughter’s request, Donohue kept helping more people.

“We don’t turn anybody away,” said Donohue. “We find the people who fall through the cracks.”

Burnett, a Syracuse native, attended a friend’s graduation when she met Donohue. Burnett was two classes short from earning her associate’s degree at Herkimer County Community College and wasn’t sure if she would finish. Donohue approached Burnett and told her to come into On Point, which Burnett did.

“She didn’t have to come talk to me,” Burnett said. “I would have still been lost.”

On Point helped Burnett transfer to Buffalo State University, where she finished her associate’s degree and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2008. With a lack of home support, On Point representatives visited her on campus, making sure she had enough food and that school was going well. Now, after coming back to On Point in 2014, visiting students on campus is Burnett’s favorite part of the job.

“Knowing that somebody else is thinking about me, that did enough for me,” Burnett said. “I want to work and make sure I help other people because I know the struggle.”

Greene, also from the Syracuse area, found On Point through the Southwest Community Center. Greene played high school football and wanted to play in college, but trouble during high school nearly cost him the opportunity. He said On Point took a chance on him and found him a scholarship playing Division II football at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. He later transferred to Buffalo State and graduated in 2014 before taking a job with On Point.

“If I didn’t have that support I could have seen a lot more struggles, and with those struggles sometimes come bad decisions when money is involved,” Greene said. “To have that prevention of that, I think, in a sense, kind of saved a life because it kept me on the right path.”

While Burnett and Greene are locals, Deng landed in Syracuse in 2003 as a refugee from South Sudan when he was 18. Displaced as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan during civil war, Deng was unable to finish his education back home, but completed his GED diploma once stateside.

“Coming to America was like landing on a different planet to me. And going to college was even harder,” Deng said.

While at Onondaga Community College, Deng heard about On Point from a friend. With their help, he transferred to Syracuse University, earned a bachelor’s degree in 2010 and a master’s degree in international relations in 2014. Deng returned to On Point that same year, this time to help others.

On Point has enrolled more than 7,000 students in colleges and universities throughout New York. More than half are not fresh out of high school, leaving them with no school counselor to help enter college, and one-third have only one parent in their lives.

Nearly 35 percent of Syracuse’s residents live in poverty and 26.4 percent of people aged 25 and older hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 13.5 percent and 29.8 percent respectively in the United States. Syracuse’s high school graduation rate increased to 61 percent in 2016 from 55 percent in 2015, while the country’s 2015 rate for public schools was 83 percent.

“We want to see Syracuse change for a positive,” Greene said. “We want to be a part of that change.”

On Point often finds incoming students through community centers or word of mouth, targeting first generation college students, those who don’t believe college is attainable and refugees adjusting to America. They take students on college tours, walk them through applications, help find financial aid and transport them.

“Being a first-generation student, you don’t know anything about the college process,” Greene said.

On Point is there to advise students if their grades start to slip or if there is any problem at school. They try to catch falling grades at the beginning and get students back on track. But even if a student doesn’t make it, On Point still tries to help them find a job they can turn into a career, just as they would for graduates.

For Donohue, she never imagined On Point would grow this big. The organization officially formed in 1999 in Syracuse and now has a Utica office and partners in New York City.

Burnett said people from other states have told her they wish they had such a program. She couldn’t agree more.

“People need this program. It really changes lives,” Burnett said. “I wish it was nationwide.”

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