When billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced that he would pay off $40 million in student loan debt for the entire Morehouse College Class of 2019, Jamel D. Chambers was seated two rows from the stage and yet he missed the announcement. Jolted to attention by the jumping and screaming from his classmates, Chambers stood and yelled too.
“What are we cheering for?” Chambers asked.
“Smith is going to pay off all of our loans,” the student said.
Unlike many of his fellow graduates, Chambers had no student debt thanks to a full ride scholarship his charter public high school helped him earn. INCS spoke with Chambers about his journey from Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men—Englewood Campus to college graduation with no student debt.
Journey to Morehouse
Chambers began his freshman year at a traditional public high school in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Supported by a loving family, Chambers performed well academically, but he lacked the right mindset to remain focused during class. As a result, Chambers received so many detentions that his school decided to expel him.
Forced to find a new school late in the year, Chambers had two options: attend another neighborhood school or attend Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men–Englewood Campus, a charter public school. His family chose Urban Prep.
“Once I got there, it definitely helped shaped my character and identity,” Chambers said. “It changed my whole perspective and outlook on life. That’s why I love Urban Prep so much.”
Urban Prep teaches its all-male, predominantly black student population to believe in themselves as they strive toward greatness and college acceptance. Even as negative stereotypes proliferate mass media about young boys and men of color, Urban Prep reminds students that they are not mediocre, lazy or incapable of achieving their dreams.
“Urban Prep was more than a school. It was a family and a brotherhood,” Chambers said. “No matter what was going on in my life outside school, once I walked through those doors, I forgot everything negative going on in my life.”
Beyond character development, Urban Prep also helps each student apply to at least 10 schools during a rigorous college readiness course. Although Chambers applied to several schools, he had his eyes set solely on Morehouse.
“There was no other school in the world for me but Morehouse,” he said.
When Chambers finally received his acceptance letter, he discovered Morehouse only offered $5,000 of the required $42,000 a year for tuition and related expenses.
Chambers turned to his Urban Prep college counselor Jessica Cole, who worked tirelessly to find him a prestigious scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This scholarship paid for his entire undergraduate experience, provided mentoring and job services and offered him the opportunity to attend a post-undergraduate program in a specific discipline free-of-charge.
Thanks to the support from Urban Prep, Chambers headed to the college of his dreams without a financial burden.
Life at Morehouse
As Chambers reflects on his time at Morehouse, he says Urban Prep did more than just get him into the college of his dreams without student debt. In many classes, Chambers discovered that he was already exposed to the required texts because of Urban Prep’s inclusion of black literature in its curriculum. Urban Prep also instilled in Chambers the habit of arriving early, so Chambers never attended a meeting, interview or class late.
Urban Prep staff also tracked and supported Chambers throughout his college experience, making sure he was doing well.
“Most schools care about you while you’re there. Once you graduate, you never hear from them again,” Chambers said. “Urban Prep is not like that.”
Chambers said attending Morehouse allowed him to accomplish many feats he’s proud of. He started the first ever boxing club at Morehouse. He joined the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi Inc., making him a third generation Kappa from Morehouse in his family. As a political science major, Chambers cultivated relationships with Atlanta’s mayor, senators and district attorney. Those relationships helped land him a job offer after college.
Even though he was debt free from the start, Chambers still intends to pay it forward along with his fellow graduates. Chambers first area of service will be in Chicago Public Schools, where he will work in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs.
“I’m excited to be back and a part of the Chicago Public Schools family to continue the success it has had for many years,” Chambers said.
To support students like Chambers at Urban Prep, visit http://www.urbanprep.org/support-us.