The Pittsburgh Foundation

A promise keptThe Pittsburgh Promise

Torron Mollett stands at the corner of Nadir Way and Kelly Street in Homewood where he grew up.

Torron Mollett as told to Lauren Bachorski, director of communications at The Pittsburgh Promise.

AS ONE OF THE LARGEST PROGRAMS of its kind in the country, The Pittsburgh Promise marks its first decade of providing college educations to thousands of Pittsburgh students. A recent graduate reflects on the life-changing experiences that helped him hold on to and achieve his goal of a college education.

The Promise, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, operates under the principle that education beyond high school is transformative, providing an access point that lifts individuals and communities out of poverty and into sustainable and thriving economies. The organization is now celebrating its 10th year of making a college, trade or technical education achievable for students. At this milestone, the program has provided more than $100 million in higher education scholarships to 7,300 recipients. Torron Mollett, 23, who graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice in 2012, is one of them.

Mollett’s pathway to a college education was hardly illuminated by hope-filled dreams. Like many Pittsburgh students sharing his background and economic circumstances, the idea of pursuing an undergraduate degree was too far-fetched to consider. But mentors and educators introduced him to the Promise program and pushed him toward it. Mollett stayed with it and won acceptance to Clarion University. It was a seismic life change, and he faced daunting challenges in the transition to college-level studies. While he worked hard to overcome them, he realized that African American students like him at Clarion would have a better chance of success if there was a formal support system. His response was to work with university officials to create a campus-wide mentoring and retention program tailored to African American students. Heading toward graduation in June, Mollett entered an essay competition that would determine the student commencement speaker — and won.

Five years ago, I couldn’t even have imagined holding a college diploma in my hands, so I never imagined myself speaking at my graduation ceremony. Not at all. I’m from Homewood, where kids feel lucky to graduate from high school. The truth is that a lot of my neighbors drop out, end up in jail or get killed. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Look — my parents created a loving home for me, but life was tough. My mom had me when she was 15. My dad died when I was in middle school. While he was alive, my dad was there for us, but he was in and out of jail. We lived on a street that was plagued with drugs and violence. The crime in the neighborhood was always close by. Our home was the target of gunfire at one point.

The idea of college seemed like a television sitcom. My reality: The cost of a college education would outweigh the benefits.
But if you asked my teachers, college was the obvious next step. I was the captain of the track team and vice president of student government. Grades were never a problem for me. But I guess I lost focus, because my grade point average fell below 2.5 early in my senior year. That really made me think, because I knew I needed a 2.5 to be eligible for the Promise scholarship.

My self-imposed ultimatum: improve my grades. I had to increase my GPA or give up and end my education at high school. Something inside told me to improve my grades. My teachers and mentors pushed me to reach past my comfort zone and visit some schools. Eventually, I found myself heading toward a college education.

The next summer, I started classes at Clarion University with my Promise scholarship backing me up. I still had to work during school, but without the scholarship, I don’t think I would have gone to school at all.

The Clarion campus is quiet and rural. I was surprised that it felt like home, but it did — it felt right. But something feeling right and being easy are two different things. It’s a culture shock. I was assigned a peer mentor to ease the transition. I remember getting my first C in an English class. English was always my strongest subject! My mentor helped me through it.

I think it was that mentoring experience that helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that had shaped me. Mentors and family members have been supporting me since elementary school. They were the thread stitching my successes together.

Freshman year is a time when you reflect on who you are and who you want to be. I realized that I wanted to serve others. At the end of that year, I came up with an idea to create mentoring programs specifically for African American students. I worked with the Clarion Office of Minority Student Services to launch G.E.M.S. (Golden Eagle Men’s Success) and R.U.B.I.E.S. (Rise Up Beautiful Intellectual Exceptional Sisters). I didn’t think it would work, but the staff at the student services office believed in me.

Today, these programs coordinate more than 100 students and mentors. One of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that more than 50 percent of the students who enter as mentees go on to become mentors themselves. Founding the mentoring program boosted my confidence more than any other experience because it showed me that I could ignite change.

That’s part of why I majored in political science and criminal justice. I saw so many in my community get locked up and then continue to cycle in and out of the justice system. They didn’t have the support to overcome it. So, I’m especially interested in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. I know that it will be tough work to do, but change requires commitment. This fall, I will begin my graduate studies in criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. I guess that’s another thing I never thought I would do.

On the day of my college graduation ceremony, it all hit me. My friends poked fun at me because I cried through the entire day.
I cried during my commencement speech when talking about my parents. I’m the first male in my family to receive a college degree because of them. I cried watching the members of G.E.M.S. and R.U.B.I.E.S. cross the stage for their diplomas.

During the speech that day, I encouraged my classmates to take their degree and do something positive with it. I’m determined to take my own advice.

Original story appeared in the Report to the Community 2016-17