Helping Hands on the Path to College

Siatta Davis, left, program coordinator for the Hill Family Center for College Access at Rutgers–Camden, is helping Desinee Davis, a senior at Camden High School, with her college plans. Desinee will be the first in her family to attend college.

By Shelby Vittek GSC’16

Desinee Davis’s pending graduation from Camden High School brings on mixed emotions. “It’s exciting to be finishing, but it’s scary, too,” she said. “I think doubts go through every high school senior’s mind. You are scared sometimes and you don’t always know what to do.”

A native of Camden who has lived all her life in the city, Desinee wants to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology. When she does, she’ll be the first one in her family to attend college, a goal she is well on her way to achieving with guidance from the Hill Family Center for College Access at Rutgers–Camden. “It has been a lot of help,” said Desinee, a senior who is applying to Rutgers–Camden, Rutgers–New Brunswick, and two other schools. “It’s preparing me for the real world.”

The Hill Center is dedicated to providing local students like Desinee and their families with pre-college assistance and support. She has benefited from workshops and one-on-one consultations with education ambassadors from the Hill Center who visit high schools in and around Camden to provide counseling, advising, and preparation for college. “We host college and career readiness workshops,” said Siatta Davis, program coordinator for the Hill Center. “We assist with completing financial aid applications and college applications. We make sure that students stay on top of their documents and communications from the schools, and we mentor them during the admissions process.”

Twin Brothers Give Back

The Hill Center began with a $200,000 gift from George and Washington Hill, Class of 1961 alumni. Since opening in 2011—the 50th anniversary of their graduation—it has assisted more than 1,500 high school students, including 500 in the past year. The identical twin brothers saw the center as an opportunity to give back to the university and the community that helped shape them. “We were serious about mentoring students, but also mentoring the community,” Washington said.

George Hill, a microbiologist pictured at left, and his twin Washington, an obstetrician and perinatologist, both graduated from Rutgers–Camden in 1961.

The brothers were born in Moorestown in 1939, and moved to Camden with their parents and younger sister, Mary Esther, when they began junior high school. Their father, William, was a clerk at the 30th Street Station post office in Philadelphia and their mother, Ruth Esther, did domestic work in nearby Cherry Hill. “We got our work ethic from them,” Washington said.

In 1956, the brothers attended the American Legion Jersey Boys State, an annual leadership program gathering boys from New Jersey high schools. “There were a thousand kids there, yet only five black representatives from high schools participated,” George said. “Washington and I were two of them.”

It was there that George and Washington met Harold Eaton, director of admissions at Rutgers–Camden, then known as Rutgers College of South Jersey. Eaton took a strong interest in the Hill brothers, and kept in touch with them after the program was over. In the spring of 1957, as George and Washington prepared to graduate from Camden High School, Eaton sent the brothers letters informing them they’d received full tuition scholarships. “Rutgers allowed us to go to college,” said Washington. “Remember, it was the 1950s and we were two black students. I’m not sure where else we would have gone.”

George started out on the path to become a history teacher, but after taking an interest in parasitology during a biology class as a sophomore, decided to switch his major. He also was very involved in student government. Washington, who had always been interested in medicine, majored in chemistry and joined a fraternity.

The brothers both went on to exceptional and accomplished careers, collecting long lists of accolades along the way. Washington earned his medical degree from Temple University, where he developed a fascination with the labor and delivery process. For nearly 50 years, he has been a practicing obstetrician and perinatologist, and only recently stepped down from performing surgeries. Among many other positions, Washington has served as the president and chief of the medical staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida, where he helped found a high-risk pregnancy center. He still works as a senior physician for the Florida Department of Health to ensure high-risk pregnant women have access to care.

George went on to earn a master’s degree from Howard University and a doctorate in biochemistry at New York University. He has led a distinguished career in biomedical research and spent four decades in academia, holding faculty positions at Colorado State University, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and, most recently, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he served as the first vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion until 2017. Though he’s a renowned microbiologist, George has devoted much of his career to promoting diversity in the sciences, and has mentored hundreds of graduate and medical students. “Mentoring has always been a key part of both of our careers,” said George. “It’s heart-warming and rewarding to known that the gift we were able to provide—with the intention of being able to provide for students from Camden—is bearing fruit.”

While he admits that he doesn’t always agree with his brother about everything, Washington said they do see eye-to-eye about this. “It’s a great way to give back to students who can find a place where they’ll feel comfortable learning,” Washington said. George agreed. “When you’re able to provide support and see the impact it has on the lives of students, that’s what investment is all about.

Increasing College Degrees in Camden

The Hill Center, part of the Rutgers–Camden Office of Civic Engagement, is a key partner of the Camden College Access Network (CCAN), a collaborative effort of colleges, K–12 schools, nonprofits, and corporations in Camden. The collaborative effort hopes to raise the number of Camden residents with college degrees. Estimates are that about 10 percent of residents have post-secondary degrees; the goal is to increase that to 50 percent by 2023.

Karim Council, who was born and raised in Camden, enrolled at Rutgers–Camden with the help of the Hill Center. A first-year student majoring in psychology, he wants to work as a therapist for children and young adults.

There are many examples of high school students from Camden who are now in college who have benefited from the Hill gift. Karim Council, who was born and raised in Camden and attended UrbanPromise Academy, worked closely with Hill Center advisers and his high school guidance counselor during the college application process. Now a first-year psychology major at Rutgers–Camden, Karim wants to be a therapist for children and young adults. He’s glad to have had the opportunity to work toward this goal at a college in his hometown. “Camden has such a negative connotation,” Karim said. “I want to say I grew up and stayed in my city.”

Thanks, in part, to the Hill brothers, he is studying at the college they did six decades ago. It’s a location with which he is quite familiar. “When I was a kid, I’d walk by the Rutgers library and play on the stairs,” Karim said. “Now, I’m proud it’s my campus.”

Shelby Vittek, associate editor at New Jersey Monthly magazine, holds an M.F.A. from Rutgers–Camden.

About the Hill Family Center for College Access

  • Founded: 2011
  • Students Served: 1,500+
  • Services Offered: Post-Secondary Education Advising; College Pathway Sessions; Academic Assistance; Parental Support; Middle School College Awareness Programs
  • Phone: 856-225-2885

 

Posted in: 2019 Spring, Features

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