The Gift of Giving: Milken Scholars Volunteer at Annual College Essay Workshop at A. Philip Randolph

Written by Felix Bulwa | 12/30/2020

The holiday season is showing us how the spirit of giving endures despite the hardships of 2020. This Fall, a group of Milken Scholars represented that spirit in a place that hits close to home.

For more than 10 years, Alumni Scholar Kim Foo Chow, MS ‘96, along with staff of the New York based organization, Sound Business Institute, have coordinated a college essay workshop for seniors at A. Philip Randolph High – the high school in Harlem, NY from which the first Milken Scholars were selected in 1989. This year’s event turned virtual, with two weekends full of essay refining and breakout room advising.

Milken Scholars spent two Saturdays helping high school seniors review their college application essays.  “Current and Alumni Scholars worked in tandem, pairing up with students to benefit from a diverse set of perspectives,” explained Kim Foo. “Lawyers, artists, bankers, writers, technologists, doctors, community advocates, and more offered their insights to students looking for voices of experience.” 

A historic high of nearly 30 Milken Scholars offered their guidance and insight. “Right away, the feeling and energy of the Zoom was infectious,” recalled Tulani Thomas, MS ‘94. “We were all smiling and introducing ourselves. The students were eager to hear what the Milken Scholars and Alumni thought of their college essays and the volunteers were excited to be a part of their college application process; we were ready to assist.” 

Usually only Scholars based in or near New York can make the trip to Harlem for in-person discussions, but the new virtual face allowed for a record-number of students and Scholars to participate.  The group had a strong representation from Milken Scholars on the west coast who didn’t hesitate on making the early Saturday wake up call for the event. “This one felt a lot more organized, as virtual events require more structure than in person ones,” remarked Julián Nelson, MS ‘15, a frequent volunteer at the event. “I was definitely appreciative of being able to spend more one-on-one time with a single student, and help them hone in on a solid direction for their essay.”

With a wide array of background industries, the volunteer Scholars offered the seniors a new lens for their ideas. “I had a great time talking with my student about his essay,” explained Julián. “He was writing a really interesting essay about photography and I mentioned to him that if that were the case, his essay could be written as snapshots of his life.”

Kim Foo elaborated on the importance of centering the event around writing: “By interacting around college essays, the students can witness how the Scholars overcome similar obstacles in their journeys.  This is immensely powerful.  Seeing people similar to oneself succeed through effort motivates the students to believe that they too are able to persevere. By focusing on capturing their voices on paper now, we ask them to be heard for years to come.” 

“Even though we spend only a couple of hours with them, it really does feel as though they gain from our meetings,” said Roslyn Rivas, MS ‘13. “From my experience, the kids seem to leave feeling more confident in their essays and writing abilities. Although meeting in person is great, having virtual sessions this year allowed way more people to participate.”

Apart from helping in structure and diction, some Scholars were able to shed some light on the admissions world. “As the student to have gone through the admissions process most recently, I made sure to share some tips to all of the students after I worked with some of them individually,” explained Katelyn Sulett, a member of the Milken Scholar Class of 2020. “I emphasized being vulnerable, and showing the admissions committee the person behind the transcripts, test scores, and grades.”

Alumni Scholar Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard, a member of the inaugural Milken Scholar Class from A. Philip Randolph, brought in a similar fresh perspective in the form of her daughter and future Columbia University First-Year, Jalsa. “It was wonderful to see how the students connected with her as a recent graduate and heartwarming to know that she was giving back to the school and community that gave so much to me.  It was a full circle moment for me.”

Both sides of the Zoom call felt the workshop’s impact. “What I got out of this experience was fulfillment and hope,” said Tulani. “It was fulfilling to be a part of another’s journey and help to guide their steps towards their purpose. It gave me hope as an alumni and mother, that our students are committed to growth and change and are willing to put in the work to achieve a better outcome not only for themselves and family, but our community at large.”   

Jenny Tsang-Quinn was another of three Scholars representing the Milken Scholar Class of 1989 at the workshop. “As a child of immigrants, I didn't have access to parents, extended family members, or even many neighbors, immigrants themselves, who understood the college application process in the United States,” said Jenny. “I still remember the fear while being a junior and a rising senior in high school of needing to figure out the college application process, figure out how to pay for the college applications and the costs of traveling to schools for interviews, and in the end, figure out how to pay for college.”

Reflecting on her alma mater, Jenny has seen how the event has made a difference over the past decade. “One of the students who I worked with more than 10 years ago is a social worker today.  When I talked to her 2 years ago, she told me that the participation of the Milken Scholars was a tipping point for her, that our investment of time in her and her classmates made her realize that she was worthy to attend college and be successful.”

So maybe the real gift came not in the edited paragraphs, but the power of example. As Kim Foo put it: “Their eyes lit up each time the students met the Milken Scholars that proudly declared ‘I am an Alumni from A. Philip Randolph High School.’ For those brief hours that quickly flew by, the participants connected and stories were captured over screens.”

This past week our Milken Scholar volunteers received a wonderful gift from A. Philip Randolph; an email confirming that all seniors had successfully submitted their college applications. 

Thank you to the group of 27 Milken Scholars for this gift of giving.  We appreciate you!


Jose Aceves, MS ‘17
Sabiya Ahamed, MS ‘13
Marshall Benitez, MS ‘89
Yuliya Chernova, MS ‘98
Caroline Chiu, MS ‘13
Kim Foo Chow, MS ‘96
Jupiter El-Asmar, MS ‘13
Carlmais Johnson, MS ‘99
Cynthia Leon, MS ‘08
Nicole Litvitskiy, MS ‘16
Kayla McGarrell, MS ‘14
Josselyn Navas, MS ‘18
Julian Nelson, MS ‘15
Francis Poon, MS ‘09
Roslyn Rivas, MS ‘13
Shirin Salehi, MS ‘13
Cheryl Seraile Yam, MS ‘90
Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard, MS ‘89
John Shen, MS ‘03
Hong Sio, MS ‘07
Katelyn Sulett, MS ‘20
Tulani Thomas, MS ‘94
Jenny Tsang-Quinn, MS ‘89
Khai Tran, MS ‘16
Chelsea Tuomi, MS ‘10
Simrankaur Wahan, MS ‘15
Najya Williams, MS ‘16

Tagged Scholars:
Felix Bulwa
MS '18