When college becomes an attainable dream for disadvantaged youth


For 25 years, a uniquely Akron story about collaboration and dedication to a dream has played out on the campus of The University of Akron. Thanks to a public private partnership, a generous gift from the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1987 has “kept on giving”—creating extraordinary opportunities for disadvantaged youth to become college graduates, civic leaders and successful executives.

Wendell Niles is one of those success stories—now an engineer and business executive traveling from Germany to his home town of Akron next week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Strive Toward Excellence Program (STEP) and “pass the torch” to the next generation of achievers, including twenty 6th graders about to enter the program.

Big day for a new class

The new class of STEP hopefuls were inducted and honored May 3, during which they and their families caught a glimpse of the dreamthanks to philanthropic dollars and dedicated professionals who built a program to change the lives of economically disadvantaged youngsters and make college attainable.

UA STEP coordinator Deborah Stone has run the program for all 25 years, rejoicing with each graduating class and proud of the nearly 600 “Firestone Fellows” who beat all odds and expectations. “We identify them when they are in the sixth grade—kids who have great potential based on test scores and school performance, but are facing great risks because of their life circumstances. They become part of our program where we support them every single step of the way—financially, emotionally, socially, academically.” And when they reach high school age, these youngsters transition seamlessly into federally funded programs, like Upward Bound, to continue academic and social preparation for these first-generation college-goers.

One graduate's story: Derrick Hall

That preparation goes beyond the classroom. For example, dance classes are part of the mandatory summer academic enrichment program, along with English, composition, math, science, speech/debate, drama, study skills and swimming. And field trips—from the White House to whale-watching in Boston—provide experiential learning opportunities to many students who would otherwise have been unable to afford the travel.

“Most of the kids will say they can’t possibly do well in dance classes,” says Stone. “When they learn they can succeed—and even enjoy a dance recital in front of their families—they learn a valuable lesson in life.” All instructors work together to instill in the youngsters the importance and accessibility of a college education and how these life skills contribute to life success.

Life lessons and skills training and confidence building have produced a 90 percent college attendance rate among these select Akron students. Those who stay in Akron to attend The University of Akron are eligible for full scholarships.

The original letter from then UA President William Muse to then Firestone CEO John Nevin (11/12/87) requesting funding for this program promised “to perpetuate the Firestone presence in Akron through the lives of disadvantaged young people…consistent with our shared aspirations and concerns for the well-being of the Akron community.” The gift of $3 million was shepherded by then Firestone executive Ben Ammons who also was chair of the UA Board of Trustees at the time. “The success of this program is due largely to the dedication of its management, who warmly works with each youngster to ensure they and their families stay actively engaged and on track to achieve their dreams of a college education,” says Ammons. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to see these youngsters when they are at the start of the program, to feel their excitement, and years later, to see the gratitude expressed by the graduates.”

Attaining the dream

STEP became a unique collaboration between public school teachers and counselors, private industry, university and community leaders and has been described as the first-of-its-kind endowment by a business targeting a specific community in the state for disadvantaged, low income and minority students. Federal, state, and local support ensures that generations of high achievers are able to attain the dream and the promise of a college education.

Hank Hara, Chief Technology Officer of Bridgestone Americas Tire Operation, describes his company’s ongoing commitment to STEP: “A key pillar in our company’s foundation is having a positive impact on the communities in which we live and work. We are proud of our 25-year partnership with the University of Akron’s STEP program. The STEP program’s college prep workshops and scholarship opportunities supported by Bridgestone are certainly having a positive impact on our community. We look forward to another 25 years of positive community impact from the partnership between Bridgestone and the STEP program.”

Says Stone: “When I first meet these youngsters in 6th grade, I ask them ‘What do you see when you grow up? What do you want to be?’ One boy told me I want to be a businessman, a pharmacist, a lawyer and a politician. Today, he is all four.” And that boy, now all grown up, was in attendance at the 25th anniversary of the program that helped deliver on his dreams.

Media contact: Eileen Korey, 330-972-8589 or korey@uakron.edu