A young person deciding to share their story with the world is a vulnerable and challenging moment. For students of color, it’s become even harder after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed affirmative action. However, Gary Linnen, CEO of PeerForward, teaches young people to embrace their stories and lived experiences, instead of shying away from it.
PeerForward, a national nonprofit organization, works with low-income students of color to encourage and guide them to pursue higher education. They do this through a peer-to-peer model, training peer leaders so they may encourage their peers to enroll in college. PeerForward also helps students write their college admissions essays, allowing students to write about themselves and their experiences in a way that will set them apart from other applicants.
Linnen comes to college access work as someone who hails from the same communities his students are from. Born and raised in the Washington projects of Spanish Harlem in New York City, Linnen said he noticed at a very early age that under resourced communities were not given the same opportunities as wealthier communities. He grew up during the crack era and was removed from that environment when he attended boarding school. Hard work in academia led him to become the first person in his family to earn a Bachelor’s degree and attend Cornell University. Linnen then went on to work for the Princeton Review and eventually came to PeerForward, where he has been for 17 years and is now the first Black and Puerto Rican male to lead the organization.
Linnen sat down with New York Nonprofit Media to talk about his upbringing, what inspired his path to college access work, the impacts of losing affirmative action and how he is moving forward without it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell me about your upbringing and how that has impacted your career trajectory today.
I am a native New Yorker, born and bred from Spanish Harlem. I grew up in a beautiful community where we really understood what it meant to be family and what it meant to knock on your neighbor's door and check on individuals and so forth. That has been the tenant of who I am and who I continue to be. I grew up in the Washington projects, first generation, low income student. We came from humble beginnings. I had the opportunity to be able to join a program that identifies young individuals that have promising trajectories, that are excelling in their grades, and then give them a different alternative pathway versus going to public school. They offer you the opportunity to go to either private day school or private boarding school. Through that, I chose to go to a private boarding school, and I did that because during the time that I grew up, it was the AIDS epidemic, it was the crack era. I knew that for me, I needed to remove myself from all of those environmental pieces to be able to excel. That changed the trajectory of my life, being able to go to school outside of Philadelphia, because it allowed me to really understand who I was as an individual. What my purpose was and understanding that it's not about me anymore. It's about being able to create change within my community. From there, I had the chance to apply to several schools and was accepted to Cornell afterwards, which was another phenomenal experience as a young Black and Puerto Rican male. Fast forward, I got the chance to become CEO of PeerForward and I'm really excited about that. Why I stay with that work is because yes, I was a first generation, low income student that was able to go to college but at the same time, there are many of my peers, many of my friends, many of my family members, that were not as lucky as me to be able to get the same chance. And so that's why I stay with the work that I do, because I want to be able to offer them an opportunity to have access to what I had access to, which was beautiful.
How did you come to this work in college admissions, and why?
Once I graduated from Cornell, I didn't know what I was going to do at all. I tried PR and moved to Atlanta for a little bit, and I realized that PR was not for me because I wanted to be my authentic self. I also knew that my end goal was to be a teacher. I wanted to ultimately retire and be a professor in college and the way in which you do that is through education. And so I had the opportunity, once I moved back to New York, to work with the Princeton Review starting in the marketing department, and then ultimately, being the director of operations. That is the key piece of why I got into the work that I'm doing now, because at the Princeton Review, I was serving individuals that can afford paying X amount of dollars, an exorbitant amount of dollars, to be able to help them be able to get into college. I still had an issue because I was coming back to my communities and noticed that there were individuals that could not afford it. So how can I be a part of the system to help individuals that need it the most, that I know that cannot afford it, but are equally as smart and be able to support them? That's where PeerForward came in. They were actually opening up a New York City office. I realized this is what I wanted to do because I get the chance to go into the communities that I was brought up in across the city to be able to say, “You can do it and let me give you tools and resources that are at my disposal to allow you to be able to get into whatever college that you want, whether it's selective or community colleges.” The goal was to make sure that they get into college. That's how I got here. It's going through PeerForward, acknowledging that there were systems and there were individuals that were coming from disadvantaged communities that didn't have access. I now became the person that was a conduit to be able to allow them to have access.
What do you think makes your organization so crucial to the world of college admissions?
What we live and breathe is that we know that a 17-year-old is more inclined to listen to another 17-year-old, and that is never going to change. It's all about peer-to-peer connections. It’s equally important that we get the chance to be able to tap into individuals that come from marginalized communities, under resourced communities, and let them understand that you have a role in this. You can go to college, despite what the news is saying. We're telling individuals in order to be able to have a viable lifespan, if you want to make sure that you're on a road towards economic mobility, college is the pathway. We are making sure that people understand the value behind it and coaching them through that pathway to make sure that they get there. It's coaching individuals from marginalized communities to make sure that they understand that they too, are just as important and should have a seat or will have a seat in college.
What is your view on the recent affirmative action decision?
It's a sad day in America, but we're going to keep staying the course of what we do. Affirmative Action became another barrier for our students to make it seem as if their identity, who they are as an individual, does not matter. For us, what we're saying is it does matter, and that includes race. That includes your community, that includes your culture, and so we're not changing anything about our processes. What we're going to do is say, “continue to tell your story, because it matters,” and as long as we continue to do that, we're going to go ahead and show up. There are many colleges across the country that have the same premise. They want uniqueness, they want to build community, they want individualism, and the way in which they learn that is through students’ personal statement. I'm excited that PeerFroward has the opportunity to go on and continue to elevate the personal statement for our young folks and say, “tell your story,” whether it’s being a Black individual from a low income community, in New York City or in Iowa, or being from a rural community, it's important you say it with your chest and just be proud about it. We're not letting the Supreme Court decision deter us from telling our story.
What do you think schools, organizations or even adults in general can do to support young people in a time where we seem to be moving backwards instead of forwards?
Lift them up and let them know that at the end of the day, this is history repeating itself right now. It's ever evolving. For us in the communities in which we serve, it's always going to be about making sure that you have a meaningful career, a meaningful life, a meaningful space where we get to live in prosperity. Don't lose sight of that just because of institutional change. Just uplift our young folks because they need it most right now. They're dealing with mental health, insecurities around basic needs, there's a lot our youth have on their plate and we're forgetting that because we're now adults. We don't understand the level of mental health wellness that they need support with, and so its important to uplift them.
How do you feel the recent court decision has impacted your work at PeerForward? Do you feel the trepidation young people have concerning mentioning their race? How do you get them to overcome that?
We're going to continue to tell them to tell their stories. We're not changing our processes across the board. However, we are also acknowledging that we're in 12 different states, and how the states are responding to it, implicates or has an effect on our funding and the way in which we talk about it. But at the core, [it’s about] not changing telling your story. If you keep telling your story, that's going to allow individuals to see you and if they don't see you, then that's not a place that you want to be and be okay with that. That's what we want to sit with, letting individuals know that your story matters, and if people don't receive it, it's okay. But go to a place where people receive it. And there are colleges out there that will receive that message.
What is it about working with young people that makes this work worthwhile?
Those are the individuals that are going to be able to have a direct effect on what the next 40 years of this country looks like. They are the next politicians, our next educators, our next Supreme Court justices, and so it's important that we're getting them to understand the values of the United States and why that is important. Our young folks are the individuals that are going to be able to shape the country but we can only guide them.
As the CEO of Peerforward, What is your vision for Peerforward moving forward? What does success look like to you?
We're going to continue to be at the forefront of being innovative, being able to be a disruptor in this system, to let folks know that if there's a challenge, lean into it, don't step out. That's both in the high school and the college space. We most recently, a couple of years ago, started working with students in the college space because what we found that we're doing a great job getting folks into college, but people are not getting out of college at the same rate that we would like them to. So our mission is to make sure that we're supporting both. By doing that we leverage individuals to understand that you are that next group of leaders that's about to change the entire ecosystem of the United States. And we're excited to be a part of that.