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First college graduates mark Emily K Center’s 10th anniversary

The center is named after Coach K's mother and prepares students for college

<p>Durham’s Emily Krzyzewski Center has helped students prepare for college using tutoring and counseling since it opened in 2006.</p>

Durham’s Emily Krzyzewski Center has helped students prepare for college using tutoring and counseling since it opened in 2006.

Shalom Hernandez has an important decision to make.

By May 1, Hernandez, like millions of high school seniors across the country, must choose a college to attend for the next four years.

Luckily for Hernandez, she has nine acceptances to choose from, a product of several years of work at Durham’s Emily Krzyzewski Center.

For the last 10 years, the Center—named after the mother of Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski—has mentored and prepared hundreds of kids for college, providing tutoring and counseling to help them navigate the college admissions process. Like Hernandez, about 80 percent will be the first member of their family to go to college.

Next Fall, 25 students from the Center’s K to College program will head to college—the nonprofit’s fifth graduating class. This Spring, however, the program will pay off in a new way—the Center’s first-ever group of high school seniors is now set to graduate from college.

“One of the greatest gifts that Coach K has given the Center is setting the bar for what good work should look like here really high. That is to say, take this opportunity, take this canvas and make it something fantastic,” said Adam Eigenrauch, the Center’s executive director. “Our ‘make it something fantastic’ has always been education specifically to help great kids—who happen to be from low-income families but certainly who have an academic focus and strong character and strong family support—ultimately reach and succeed in college.”

The vision

Growing up in Chicago, Mike Krzyzewski attended St. Helen’s, a Catholic school northwest of downtown. Just down the street, however, was Christopher Columbus, a public elementary school that hosted neighborhood events in the evenings and during the summers. Those events helped shape Krzyzewski, bringing together kids from different backgrounds and providing an initial blueprint for what became the Emily Krzyzewski Center.

“It was a way kids who went to Columbus, St. Helen’s or were in the area—not just Polish kids but Puerto Rican kids, Ukranian kids, they all came together. It’s really without parent involvement, but it taught me not to be prejudicial,” Krzyzewski said. “It was tense when we first started it, but…these guys became our buddies.”

Krzyzewski was approached by Father David McBrier of Durham’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in 1999 with the idea of building a center for the Durham community. Krzyzewski said he thought the location for the site—on West Chapel Hill Street next to the church—created significant parallels to his experience in Chicago, blending together kids and families of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The decision was made to name the Center after Krzyzewski’s mother, who stopped attending school after eighth grade. But she placed a high value on education—Krzyzewski called her “my best teacher”—and helped Krzyzewski get to the United States Military Academy at West Point as the first in his family to attend college.

“I think that makes him a really authentic leader for the Center, because he’s someone who was a kid like our kids,” Eigenrauch said. “The opportunities that college and West Point specifically created for him are not unlike the opportunity that our kids shoot for and the opportunities that are available to them.”

Seven years and $7 million of fundraising after McBrier came to Krzyzewski, the Center opened in 2006—and quickly morphed into something more than what either had envisioned.

The Center works with more than 70 other organizations and nonprofits in the area, opening its doors to thousands of other members of the community for programs and events without charge. The facility has a stage and a gym, where kids shoot hoops on the same floor that Shane Battier and company did when the Blue Devils beat Arizona in the 2001 national championship game in Minneapolis.

But Eigenrauch—a former teacher and school administrator—began to develop educational programs, building the Center into something bigger than a gathering space.

Getting ready for college

The Center’s K to College program works with students from first grade through their sophomore year of college, teaching new skills, tutoring and working with them through the ins and outs of the college application process.

Elementary and middle school students head to the Center Monday through Friday. Students in the high school program come to the center on Wednesday nights for discussions, and many come back for additional tutoring and test prep for the SAT and ACT.

The Center enrolled 36 students in its first year, but that figure has ballooned to the 225 currently taking advantage of its offerings. Eigenrauch said the program used to go out and find kids, and although efforts are still made with schools to identify promising students, the program’s results have created more and more interest.

“We’ve established a reputation for what it is we do and what it is we do well,” Eigenrauch explained. “Our students have become terrific advocates for us.... There is an element of ‘I’ve heard the Emily K Center is somewhere I should seek out if this is what I want for myself.’”

Hernandez—who attends the Durham School of the Arts—joined the program in middle school but later decided to take a break. As a high school sophomore, she rediscovered the program at the urging of a school counselor. Now, she meets with a writing coach on Wednesdays and comes back the next day to meet with a tutor.

“I think the Emily K [Center], besides being the support I need academically, is also like a second family for me because I’m here so often, and I get to spend a lot of time with the great staff here,” Hernandez said.

Fulfilling the cycle

Eigenrauch and the mentors, counselors and volunteers at the Center spent the first six years preparing their students to apply to and get into college, but there was no measure of how those students would do once they got there. That changed in 2012, however, when the first group of students graduated from high school.

That class is now set to graduate from college and bring the Center’s mission to fruition.

 “We’re hopefully going to start seeing the labors of [the Center’s efforts with] kids who have now graduated from college—maybe they’ll come back to Durham, but they’ll always be part of the Emily K Center and giving back to their communities,” said Duke deputy athletic director Mike Cragg, co-vice chair of the Center’s board of directors. 

Jasmine Everett graduated from Durham School of the Arts in 2012 and was part of the Center’s first group of graduates. In two weeks, she will graduate from Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., earning a major in math and a minor in computer science, with plans to teach high school math in Chattanooga, Tenn.

For Everett, college provided an opportunity to take advantage of her independence and grow up while exploring new interests, like her computer science minor.

“Nothing is what you think it would be. I learned a lot about myself, and I think college is there for you to figure out who you are on your own,” Everett said. “I’m really proud that I was part of the Emily K Center and that I was one of the first to experience what they have to offer. Without the Emily K Center, I really don’t know how my life would be right now as far as being in college.”

The Center is now trying to create that success on a wider level. The next program, Game Plan: College, will try to help a larger group of first-generation college students understand the process of getting into college, without the in-depth counseling and guidance of the K to College program.

“We want to, through workshops and individualized advising sessions, provide an opportunity for those students to start filling in those information deficits so they’re more empowered to make good decisions going forward,” Eigenrauch said. “[We want] to look 10 years forward and look back and say ‘Ten years ago was good, but this is better.’”

The May March

At the end of each school year, the Center holds the May March, a ceremony to recognize its students and particularly its graduating seniors, who meet Krzyzewski and receive a sweatshirt from the college of their choice. This year, 25 students will be honored, with acceptances from colleges including Vanderbilt University, Georgetown University and Rice University.

The event is a celebration of the students’ hard work as they get ready to begin the next chapter of their lives, but also a goal for younger generations to work toward achieving.

“Our younger students are looking at our graduating class—it says ‘Hey, this works,’” Eigenrauch said. “It’s not hard for our students to look ahead two years or six years [and say], ‘That could be me—I could be the one holding up the University of North Carolina sweatshirt or the Salem College sweatshirt or the Wake Forest sweatshirt, because that student was sitting right where I am in this seat three years ago.’” 

Krzyzewski said that, for him, the ceremony is one of the most rewarding parts of the program.

“I’m on stage and I’m looking at the kids, but then I’m looking at their families,” he said. “All of them come in, thanking Adam, [saying] ‘Coach, thank you.’ Those are the biggest pluses for me, that our group is doing something that good…. What our team is doing there is spectacular.”

At the May March two years ago, Hernandez received the Center’s Dream to Achieve Award from Krzyzewski. Now, she is about to go through the ceremony for the final time—but her sweatshirt choice is still up in the air.

Hernandez said she is intrigued by Salem College—an all-girls school in Winston-Salem, N.C.—in part because of a multi-week all-girls camp she attended at Mt. Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass., that gave her a new sense of confidence.

“I’m going to be really sad to leave [because] I’m not going to be here every week, but I’m also going to be really excited and happy because it means that all the hard work—not only myself but the staff, my tutors, my mentors—has finally paid off,” she said. “I hope I will inspire other young Hispanic students to follow their dreams, and that no matter where they come from, there’s always opportunities—you just have to look for them.”

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