Jonet Johnson visits Virginia Senator Yvonne Miller’s office as a student participating in the Project Discovery program. (Courtesy Photo)

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By Jonet Johnson

I still remember standing at the bus stop at 5:15 a.m., waiting for the empty school bus to pull up in my neighborhood. My mother was always nearby, waiting in the car (at 14 years old, I was “too cool” to sit in the car with her) until the bus arrived and we pulled off, heading out to make the long trek to my out-of-district high school.  

I was often angry that my mother had agreed to allow me to participate in the city’s inaugural International Baccalaureate program. It meant that I would not be able to go to school with the kids I had grown up with in the neighborhood. It meant that I would be around hundreds of new kids that didn’t look like me. 

Almost 20 years later, I thank her for making that decision. I now understand that it also meant access to new experiences and new perspectives.  

The Brookings Institute published an article about the unequal opportunities in the U.S. educational system. The article outlined how educational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources than they are a function of race. Students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status.   

Many Black students experience the invisible barriers that separate them from their white peers who come from more affluent communities. These barriers create opportunity gaps as they present challenges for many minorities to receive the same level of education and access as white individuals. 

At T. Rowe Price, we are doing our part to address some of the access gaps in the Black community, starting as early as the third grade. We partnered with the YMCA to allow our associates to mentor via the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Before the start of the pandemic, energetic third graders would arrive on our campus to meet with their assigned Big (mentor) for 90-minute sessions twice a month (we pivoted to virtual meetings during the pandemic). The students have invaluable time meeting one-on-one with our professionals.  

These mentoring relationships not only encourage strong academic performance, but they contribute to the overall social-emotional development of the Littles (kids). Mentorship has been shown to have significant positive effects on underrepresented students.  

Many minority students, in grade school and college, are left without a mentor. A mentor can be integral to students reaching their goals and their character development. It helps them connect with the right people and resources to support their advancement.

Students of color often lack access to a college prep pipeline that clarifies to them what they need to do to get into college and succeed. During my high school tenure, I participated in the Project Discovery program. The program is a community-based initiative for first-generation college-bound students. For me, the best part of the program was the numerous field trips we took to college campuses, both in and out of state.  

Exposure to different campuses only strengthened my resolve to be the first in my family to complete a four-year degree. We also were introduced to numerous career paths, when alumni of the program would return to discuss their lives post college. 

Rowe Price’s High School Career Days give support to the adage, “if you can see it, you can be it.”  Our program focuses on youth development by exposing students to a corporate environment and the different career paths at T. Rowe Price. We partner with various schools and nonprofit organizations in underserved communities to identify students to participate.

The one-day event typically includes a resume workshop, an industry-related activity/presentation, a networking event, a panel discussion featuring a diverse body of our associates, and an introduction to our financial education program, Money Confident Kids.

Minority students have immense leadership potential, yet it is often overlooked. These students are not given the opportunities and experiences to build the valuable leadership skills that will serve them well through college and beyond. We also partner with the Baltimore Ravens to present the High School Leadership Institute. One hundred students from over 20 schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County are nominated by school administrators to participate in the program. 

The program, which is developed by ADDO, is designed to prepare students to create positive impact in their schools and communities. The curriculum focuses on developing leadership qualities in students through meaningful engagement with community, civic, and business experts. Students meet four times throughout the school year to cover four vital leadership topics: Lead Yourself, Lead Others, Lead Change, and Lead Community. Students who complete the program leave with lasting friendships and a network that benefits them long after graduation.

I am grateful for the support I received while in high school and college. The lessons I learned about how to navigate both undergraduate and graduate school and the professional workforce prepared me for the career I enjoy today.  

I encourage institutions to conduct an equity audit by taking a hard look at their offerings and whether they are providing adequate mentorship and leadership opportunities for students of color. Investing in mentors and generating access creates a lasting effect. It enriches lives and creates the opportunity for recipients to pay it forward, thus unlocking the door to a brighter future for many of our youth.