'Boot camp' preps at-risk Portland kids for college

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PORTLAND — Cultivating confidence, self-esteem and a strong work ethic are key to helping anyone achieve success.

But it’s especially important for young minority males, according to Eugene Williams, founder of the College Orientation Workshop.

For 10 years now Williams has partnered with Portland High School and Unum to provide the opportunity for a local youth to take part in what is essentially a college boot camp, held over a four-week period every summer at the Virginia Military Institute.

The goal is to provide a “challenging summer educational enrichment, leadership development, character enhancement, and physical fitness program, which prepares male minority high school juniors and seniors to achieve success during the remainder of their high school careers and beyond,” Williams said.

While the final selections have yet to be made, it’s almost certain that this year’s participant from Portland High will be Benjamin Ntambwe. Ntambwe is a junior and an honor student who is active in sports and a regular at the Boys and Girls Club, Williams said.

He’s following in the footsteps of the most recent College Orientation Workshop participant, Klein Ngoga, who is graduating from Portland High on June 6 and attending college in the fall.

Williams said Ngoga attended the workshop for two consecutive summers. “He’s a distinguished graduate (of ours) and I predict that he’s going to be very successful.”

He described the workshop as “non-stop activity and work. There are academic classes in mathematics, communications and public speaking, financial literacy, career explorations and study skills fundamentals.”

All the academic classes are taught by professional educators and each class requires daily recitation, homework, reading and journaling. Each day also includes a two-hour mandatory study hall and there is also daily physical fitness training.

Williams originally founded the College Orientation Workshop more than 30 years ago to target minority males “who run the risk of failing to achieve their potential because of the host of challenges facing young men from distressed backgrounds.”

Approximately 75 percent of participants have gone on to attend college, a testament, Williams said, to the efficacy of the workshop, which puts an emphasis on high standards.

“The intent is to create an environment of shared challenge, and therefore bonding, teamwork, and a sense of community, where the young men learn to lift as they climb,” he said. “There is (also) an emphasis on community service … (and a) pay it forward” mentality.

Along with the academics and community service, “There are extensive wilderness experiences, where the students camp out in the woods, climb a mountain (and) whitewater canoe.” Williams said there are also many field trips to museums and other universities in Virginia.

It costs about $5,000 to feed house and teach each participant in the College Orientation Workshop, but 100 percent of the cost is picked up by sponsors and donations to the program, so there is no cost for the student to attend.

Each summer the workshop hosts about 30 students from “10 to 12 different states” mostly on the East Coast, according to Williams. “We keep the contingent size small on purpose, as many of the students need (individualized) attention and constant coaching.”

Most participants are “extremely intelligent and talented, … (but) they’re also struggling with self-esteem issues, anger issues, and a lack of fatherly guidance to help them cope with challenges, including failure and fear of failure,” he added.

Students are recommended to the workshop by high schools counselors and teachers, ministers, or local community organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, Williams said.

He first began working with Portland High School after being introduced to Glenn Nerbak, who runs the Portland Mentoring Alliance at the school, by Cary Olson-Cartwright at Unum’s office in Portland.

“Unum has been a major sponsor and supporter of the College Orientation Workshop for many years,” Williams said. “Unum initially began its outstanding support under the leadership of their former CEO, Mr. Tom Watjen, who is a Virginia Military Institute graduate.”

Williams targets minority young men, “particularly black Americans (because) they are the single group most likely to fail to achieve their potential in our society. They are also the group most likely to be unemployed or underemployed (and) this group is consistently far below all other groups in educational attainment from secondary school through college.”

“Education remains the best method out of poverty and economic and social distress,” he added. “The focus of the College Orientation Workshop is to address (these) issues by helping to inspire talented, but at-risk minority male students. When students have aspirations they are more willing to work harder and smarter to achieve that future.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Helping young men of color achieve academic and life success is the goal of the College Orientation Workshop at the Virginia Military Institute each summer. For the past 10 years students from Portland High School have received scholarships to attend the program.

Discipline and focus at the College Orientation Workshop starts with physical fitness.

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