Raising the Bar on Higher Education

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PHOTO PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA OVERTON
Alexandria Overton mentors girls from underprivileged backgrounds.

Alexandria Overton sleeps with the frequency of an undergrad during finals—that is, she sleeps very little. Call it the price of being a committed volunteer, working on efforts to prevent domestic violence and reduce HIV rates among African-American women. The 22-year-old’s idea of “downtime,” as she calls it, is more productive than that of most people: prepping a group of girls, grades 3–7, to attend Ivy League universities.

Overton calls her weekly mentoring program—now in its sixth month—Ivy Dolls. The name helps drive home the point that the girls should hold themselves to a high standard, personally and academically, much like other students aspiring to enter the country’s more prestigious universities. The program is an offshoot of the African-American Men & Boys Harvest Foundation, an Austin-based organization that seeks to improve the lives of low-income minority children by providing strong role models—like Overton, the foundation’s youth resource coordinator.

Like their male counterparts, the girls who participate in the Ivy Dolls program come from what Overton describes as an “underprivileged background.” Overton recruited her first participants through visits to Austin-area schools. Lately, Overton has recruited new girls through a monthly “bring a friend day,” asking parents for recommendations and spreading word about the program through Facebook. The result is a group of 20 or so Latina and African-American girls who meet one evening a week.

“In my head, I know that these girls may not even want to go to Ivy League schools, but it is the idea that this is a possibility,” she says. “That’s what I give to my girls.”

That’s also her personal goal. Overton is jumping through the hoops of Ivy League admissions procedures, hoping to land at Harvard or Columbia for graduate school—a longtime pursuit.

“I just enjoyed my undergraduate learning experience so much that I wanted it to continue,” Overton says. “You wouldn’t stop reading in the middle of a good book, would you?”

Earning acceptance for one person (let alone a group of aspirational primary-school girls) is a challenge, but Overton is a believer. She knocked out high school in three years, then graduated from Georgetown’s Southwestern University in another three with a bachelor’s in sociology. As an undergrad, she volunteered at a call center for domestic violence victims. She created an outreach program called PRETTY (Preventing the Epidemic Through Teaching Your sisters) that uses social media outlets Facebook and Twitter to inform African-American women about health issues.

Overton brings the same work ethic to Ivy Dolls, tracking progress on multiple goals meant to transform the program’s participants into Ivy League material. Report cards are charted. Declines in performance trigger a round of tutoring with Overton. But maintaining good grades is only part of the equation. The program focus is on the Ivy League itself. Overton requires the girls to research precisely what it takes, academically and financially, to attend an Ivy League school. They learn organizational skills through a fundraising campaign to pay for a trip to an Ivy League school. The girls sell decorative pens; sales and progress toward targeted goals are tracked in personal portfolios.

The girls are also encouraged to be philanthropic. “You [the Ivy Dolls] live in a community that may or may not need a lot of help,” Overton says. “So why not go out and try to do something for your communities?” Monthly community service projects are part of the program.

But Overton’s program is not without its obstacles.

When one of the Ivy Dolls asked Overton about allowing her 14-year-old pregnant sister in to the program, she had to explain why not. Overton told the girl including her sister conflicted with the Ivy Dolls’ goals, adding that the foundation had other resources to support pregnant teenagers.

Then there are the parents whose engagement ranges from fully vested to completely absent. Missing a parental presence at home makes it difficult to maintain the Ivy Dolls mentality once the weekly sessions end, Overton says.

“They’re looking for an advocate,” she says. “Every child needs an advocate. If their parents aren’t going to do it for them, someone needs to.”