Meet James, a Recent Breakthrough College Graduate pursing his PhD at Columbia University
James Carter joined Breakthrough in 2007 when he was just a 6th grader at Kealing Middle School. Six years later, he graduated from St. Stephen’s and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with Honors in English Literature from Rice University.
There is no organization to which I am more grateful or indebted than Breakthrough Central Texas—or Breakthrough Austin as I knew it for years prior—as I reflect on my successes and triumphs. In much of the ways you would expect certain aspects of my life were planned out because I had an older sister: I went to bed at 8:30PM because that was my sister’s bedtime. I went to Campbell Elementary because my sister did as well, and when it came to summer plans the model held—I enrolled in Breakthrough because my sister had. In that respect, I have known Breakthrough for most of my life (thirteen years to be exact)—it was affable, although quirky and familiar, although ever changing. While I followed my sister’s steps to Breakthrough, my path deviated in ways I had not initially anticipated, and Breakthrough was there to help me navigate and capitalize on all the opportunities I had earned.
When I applied as a 6th grader at Kealing Middle School, I was not entirely aware of what I was getting myself into. Sure, I had seen my sister go through aspects of the program, but forethought central to Breakthrough’s planning appealed to me in ways I never expected. During the entire application and recruitment process Breakthrough was marketed as a “six-year commitment”—the goal was to prepare us for college, starting now. For most people my age, I think this appeals more to our parents than to us (especially because six years was more than half of the life we had currently lived and probably about as far back as most of us could remember). However, I had been planning out as far as I could imagine: high school, college, medical school, residency, children, house(s), etc. Did I know how I was going to get to any of these places? Not really.
But Breakthrough came along and gave me two very important things: (1) Someone other than my mother telling me this could all be a reality, and (2) A path and vision to figure out how exactly to do that.
When I was going through the high school decision process, I was presented with a relatively new, rather unchartered opportunity: to apply to St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and live on campus with financial support allotted to a Breakthrough student. Though I had already submitted the application (my best friend convinced me to apply with her), St. Stephen’s was not a possibility for me until Breakthrough opened that door. And to my surprise and delight, I was admitted and spent the next four years living on campus and learning at one of the nation’s top boarding schools.
While that last sentence seems to put a beautifully-tied ribbon on a storybook high school experience, it was not exactly that. Moving from East Austin, a phenotypically and socioeconomically familiar neighborhood, to West Austin, a very white, affluent, and unfamiliar neighborhood, I struggled with imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, and countless microaggressions while trying to find my place in a foreign space. Fortunately for me, I had my local Breakthrough family comprised of the other Breakthrough students with whom I formed a critical mass and my extended Breakthrough family comprised of other Breakthrough students and staff who supported and cheered us on. Finances aside, I would not have made it through St. Stephen’s, as well as I did. And without the experiences and mission of Breakthrough I would not have left high school knowing exactly what is was I wanted to do: study and alleviate inequality.
I left St. Stephen’s in 2013 to begin my studies at Rice University in Houston. I made this move with a greater sense of security knowing my family supported me and that Breakthrough had just established their College Completion team; I knew I could not fail with the continued love and support—emotional, cognitive, financial—of these two groups.
When I think about Breakthrough, I cannot find words strong enough to convey my emotions. Instead, I do all I can to uphold the foundational pillar of giving back.
I have volunteered (2008, 2009), been a summer teacher twice (2012, 2013), and even served as an AmeriCorps Summer intern with the College Completion team (2017). Yet, I still find my debt (happily) unpaid. I hope this letter can paint a vivid enough picture of the invaluable impact the organization has had on my life. And I look forward to sharing and giving as much as I can in the future.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?
I graduated from Rice University this past May—a feat for which many at the Breakthrough office deserve countless thanks and praise. I finished with a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology with Honors and English Literature. The Psychology department awarded me the Jenessa R. Shapiro Best Undergraduate Honors Thesis Award and the John W. Brelsford Award for Superior Scholarship, Leadership & Service. I was also awarded the University-wide honor of Distinction in Research and Creative Works.
Now, I am finishing up my first year as a PhD Student at Columbia University in New York City, where I study inequality, diversity, and intergroup interactions on a full tuition scholarship, living stipend, and Provost Fellowship. In five or so years, I hope I will be finishing my first semester as a tenure-track faculty member where I will be doing my part to advance and support first-generation college students (hopefully many from Breakthrough)!