From Howard to Harvard

On April 10, education partners, businesses, and community members joined to celebrate Public Education Foundation’s thirty years of hard work and dedication to our schools and community.

Howard School graduate, Daphne M. Penn, told her story at the anniversary luncheon about how PEF helped change her life and has put her on a path of success.

Starting in the halls of Howard School, Daphne has earned degrees from Vanderbilt University, Purdue University, and is now a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at Harvard University and a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow.

She says she owes her success to the many organizations and people that helped her along the way and recognized her potential because “ability is equally distributed in the population, but opportunity is not. And ability minus support and opportunity equals unrealized potential.”

Recognizing that we must work together to close the opportunity gap, she also said, “if we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that students will be judged by the name of their high school and where they come from, we must also work to ensure that every school in this city is defined by excellence.”

If we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that students will be judged by the name of their high school and where they come from, we must also work to ensure that every school in this city is defined by excellence.

Here is the full transcript of her speech:

Hello everyone! I’m excited to be here to celebrate PEF’s 30th Anniversary and I am grateful for the opportunity to share a little about my journey – from Howard to Harvard.

Here in Chattanooga, everyone knows that you are forever defined by where you graduated from high school. You could be a 78-year-old former CEO and over the course of any given conversation, someone will eventually ask, “so…where did you go to high school?” As a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University—graduating next May—people are often surprised when I answer that I am a proud Howard Hustlin’ Tiger. Their surprise is usually followed by excitement, and ultimately, curiosity about “how I did it.”

When I share my story, I could easily attribute my success to being an intelligent and industrious young woman who overcame early life struggles by pulling myself up by the bootstraps. While that narrative may be popular and inspiring, it’s not the entire truth. When I reflect on my journey from Howard to Harvard, it’s not solely a tale about aptitude and hard work; it’s also a story about what happens when a bright student is provided with the tools and opportunity to exceed their own and others’ expectations. My own success was made possible by supportive parents, hardworking educators, and life-changing PEF initiatives that enabled me to tap into and realize my full potential.

For instance, the Passport Scholars Program not only fostered my sense of adventure and desire to explore the world, but it also helped me to develop a vision for the future and the language to articulate my dream of being a change agent in the field of education. Camp College and the College Access Center provided me with a toolkit to study for and ace the ACT, submit competitive college applications, and apply for scholarships. Mentors—Susan Street, Kitty Caldwell, Rebecca Suttles, Stacy Lightfoot, and Sarah Broadnax—pushed me to step outside my comfort zone and apply to some of the nation’s top undergraduate institutions. Finally, opportunities for advanced coursework taught by a diverse group of well-trained and culturally-responsive educators, like Drs. Elizabeth Renneisen and Gilda Lyon, enabled me to excel at Vanderbilt and graduate with honors.

When I reflect on the many opportunities provided to me by PEF, it is easy to connect the dots and see the pivotal role that the organization played in helping me to move from Howard to Harvard. But beyond my desire to give credit where it’s due and honor the people and organizations that have supported me, another reason I reject the narrative that my success is solely the result of “extraordinary intellect” is because it obscures an important fact—ability is equally distributed in the population, but opportunity is not. And ability minus support and opportunity equals unrealized potential.

Hamilton County, the Opportunity Zone, and Howard are filled with potential. There are so many students in this district who have the aptitude, and simply need someone to offer them an opportunity to stretch and grow. It is my hope that everyone in this room will commit to closing the opportunity gap and ensuring that my story becomes the new normal, because I cannot be an outlier. Also, if we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that students will be judged by the name of their high school and where they come from, we must also work to ensure that every school in this city is defined by excellence.

The best way to demonstrate your commitment is by investing in the Public Education Foundation and its life-changing and school-changing initiatives. I am here today and I humbly ask you to donate your time and resources to PEF. I promise that by doing so, you are taking an important step in ensuring that all Chattanooga schools are characterized by success and that all Chattanooga students have the support and opportunity to reach for what might seem impossible, but with your help, is within their reach—just as it was within mine.

Thank you.

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