Hill Harper Discusses Honor Your Future Now Campaign

“Many of those young men don’t have enough positive male role models to emulate, which is why it’s important for me to be visible and vocal about my education.”

Late in 2015, I was approached with an opportunity to conduct an interview with Hill Harper regarding his collaboration with the National Honor Society and its Honor Your Future Now campaign. Of all of my submissions for the Examiner, this felt like my biggest one yet. In addition to getting the word out about Honor Your Future Now, Hill and the National Honor Society’s goal was to get parents and young people thinking early about the steps they could take towards preparing for college. He also shared some important aspects of his own journey through life. This interview was previously published on the both The Examiner and The Edvocate.

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With roles in a long list of films including: Get on the Bus, Beloved, He Got Game, The Skulls, For Colored Girls, and most recently, Concussion, Hill Harper needs no introduction. Also an education advocate, the actor/author recently gave an interview on Jan. 12 in collaboration with the National Honor Society regarding its Honor Your Future Now Campaign. In the following interview, Hill discusses the campaign, in addition to other keys to success for students and parents in the areas of college and career planning, and life.

Anwar Dunbar: First off Hill, I’m a longtime fan of your work and appreciate this opportunity to interview you. You are a very well accomplished actor, writer, and an education advocate. Were you always a straight A student yourself? If not, what was the turning point for you?

Hill Harper: No I wasn’t, though my parents very much emphasized the value education can play in your life. In high school I don’t think the teachers or my peers necessarily expected me to be great or do well. I was just an okay student. But there was a fire lit within me, because it was explained to me that there was a link between how I performed in school and my future opportunities.

That’s really the key because when we tell kids to stay in school, we usually just stop there. We usually don’t tell them why, and someone had the foresight to pull me to the side and say, “Hey, you don’t just have to be on the same level as everybody else. If you apply yourself, you can excel, and if you do excel, this is what can happen.”

Because of this I was one of the first people from my school to go away to and graduate from an Ivy League institution (Brown and Harvard Universities). Again, the reason this happened was because I was fortunate enough to have someone pull me to the side and say, “Hey, what you do in school now will impact your future options, so apply yourself,” and that’s why I’m so proud of the National Honor Society pillars; because when you think about what they represent, you can see that you can really build a life of a well-rounded student and individual. That’s what I aspired to do, and that’s ultimately what I became.

AD: I see that you’re from Iowa and have two very accomplished parents. Did you have any challenges as a youth on your journey through school and to all of your successes?

HH: What’s interesting for me is that we left Iowa when I was just starting first grade, very early. I came back for just a little bit, one year of eighth grade, but for the most part I was educated somewhere else. As an African American and moving through different schools and around a lot, maybe that’s why I became an actor because you have to get comfortable meeting new people and adapting to new situations. Certainly in Iowa, African Americans are not the majority, but my parents always made it very clear not to focus on race, and race-based thinking in terms of my education, and in terms of whatever preconceived notions some people may have had.

I can’t speak for how the teachers may have perceived me, but I can say that I was never going to allow anyone to think that I couldn’t perform on the same level as them based on anything having to do with race, and any kinds of stereotypes around education and educational performance. I’m proud of being from the Midwest and having Midwestern roots because it really seems the Midwest is a place where old school values are.

I’m also proud that I went to high school in California because that opened me up to different types of diversity that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. So I kind of got the best of both worlds growing up, certainly by having two parents who were educated. Both of my parents met at medical school at Howard University. I’m very proud that I was able to follow in their footsteps to go to college and graduate school.

AD: That’s interesting because for some black males even when they come from “successful” homes, they’re still caught between following that path or following the negative images in the media, you know, the “street credibility” type of thing.

HH: Exactly. That does happen. In part, to me that happens because many of those young men don’t have enough positive male role models to emulate, which is why it’s important for me to be visible and vocal about my education. A lot of young men will send letters, emails, tweets, or posts on Instagram saying, “Hey man, people used to tell me that it wasn’t cool to be smart and now knowing you, I realize that it’s cool to be smart, because you’re a cool guy. It’s sexy to be smart.”

Smart is the new cool, so I think we can turn the corner on that, particularly with campaigns like Honor Your Future Now, which is a cool campaign. It’s about honoring your future, but it starts right now and to me, if we can get that message out to young people and young African American men, we can really have impact because oftentimes a lot of these young men are taught not to think about their future. They’re taught to think about right now only, and that leads to poor sets of choices. Ultimately in life, we’re all the aggregation and accumulation of a series of choices that we make, and those choices determine our life’s path.

AD: Tell me about the Honor Your Future Now campaign, and why you decided to get involved?

HH: I eagerly came together with the National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society to help with this campaign. It’s really a call to action for students titled Honor Your Future Now. They’re providing resources, they’re providing advice to prepare for college and careers, and hopefully lifetime success. I got involved because I was a member of the National Honor Society when I was in school, and they reached out to see if it was something I would help them talk about.

There are five pillars of the National Honor Society:

Scholarship- Performing well in school, doing your best and preparing for college;
Character- This one is huge for me and actually goes back to what we just talked about: making choices in your life which are character based choices, demonstrating high standards of honesty and integrity, courtesy and being a high character person;
Leadership- Stepping up and embracing the fact that as a young person, saying I can make a difference in my school, in my family’s life and in my own life;
Citizenship- Being a good steward and a good citizen, understanding what your rights are in this country, understanding that you are just as in control of your community as anyone else and;
Service- Volunteering in community service projects and getting involved.

So if you think about it, these all create a well-rounded person, and I love touting those pillars and those ideals, and they really underlie a lot of what I believe.

Right now we want to talk about how to pay for college. If you go online to Honor Your Future Now, there are lots of resources. There are a lot of misnomers that students walk around with. I talk with students all over the country and they’ll tell me, “Yeah, I want to go to college, but I can’t afford it.” The simple fact is they can’t afford not to go school, and there are different ways to pay for college. The National Honor Society has a college funding graphic on the site. It’s like an infographic and there’s also a link for the Free Application for Federal Student Loans which is a link to the government student loans.

Often these students are coming from schools where their college counselors aren’t up to speed on all of this information about how to pay for school. You have: scholarships, grants, work study programs, and loans, so many different ways to pay for school. Students have to understand that you may have to combine these things, and it’s not just going to be one thing fixes all.

It’s not necessarily going to be a full ride scholarship, and it’s not that you’ll necessarily have to take out loans for the whole thing. You’re going to go and learn about all of the things that are offered and then cobble together how to pay for your education. You’ll get a little scholarship money here. You’ll get a grant here, and some work study there. You’ll get a federal loan as well, and doing all of this, you’ll be able to cobble together the money to pay for school.

AD: In addition to the rising costs of school leading to exorbitant amounts of student debt, what other challenges do you see today’s college students facing? In general, are there qualities and values that you see today’s students (i.e. the millennials) missing that were more prevalent when you were in college?

HH: I think being a critical thinker, and an innovator, are some of the things that will help you get ahead. At the same time understanding technology and really digging in, in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will really help. I hear so many students say, “I’m no good at math, and I’m no good at science.” When someone says that to me, they’re really expressing a fear more so than the truth because it’s all relative.

It’s not about being good. You have a proficiency in something to a certain degree that other people may not have. Proficiencies aren’t good or bad. It’s just where you are at that particular time, and you can improve those skill sets. If students have these blocks saying, “I’m no good at this, I’m no good at that”, they’ll block it out and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that their proficiency level won’t rise. So the biggest thing to me is conquering the students’ fears. There’s a lot of fear about future jobs and job growth. There’s a lot of fear about technology, engineering and math and science, and there’s a lot of fear about where we’re headed.

Here’s the deal, an educated person who is a critical thinker, who is educated and a good communicator, and actually embodies the five pillars of the National Honor Society is someone who will be able to work in the future, be gainfully employed, and by the way, happy with their career choice. The person who allows fear to stop them from pursuing their higher education, to stop them from even going onto the Honor Your Future Now, and the National Honor Society websites, that’s what I’m most concerned about and that’s what a lot of people do.

AD: Okay Hill, I have one last question. Do you have any closing words or advice for students or parents who may read this interview?

HH: Absolutely. Think boldly and creatively about your future. Think globally and not locally. So many students I talk to think that they have to stay within their relatively small geographic circle, and that they can in no way afford to go anywhere else. And again, that’s misinformation. Fear for me stands for: False Evidence Appearing Real. So much false information is passed down amongst students, teachers, and parents.

The number one place that the students go to for advice around paying for college is their parents. So if parents are actually reading this article, I need parents to go to the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now websites, and look at what’s there, because you are going to be the most instrumental person giving your student advice, and if you don’t have the right information, they’re going to get misinformation, so don’t be afraid of what’s out there. Don’t be afraid to learn as much as possible and don’t be afraid to apply to as many different types of scholarships, grant programs, and other loan opportunities to find the best place for your student to go.

And if you’re a parent, don’t be afraid to let your student go away. I’ve heard many parents say, “Well they aren’t ready to go out of state. They’re not ready to go there.” Don’t let your fears hold back the opportunities for your student.

I have a quick story of a young man who was from Mississippi who had the opportunity to go to Alaska to get some higher education and some vocational training. His parents initially didn’t want him to go but he went, and his whole life and world have changed. He has all of these different job offers at this point in different fields in energy and oil production.

These are opportunities that have been given to him, where he is going to become two to three times the highest earner in the history of his family, and that’s coming right out of school. That’s because he looked for opportunities that were further away from where he was where the opportunities didn’t exist, but they figured out how to make it work. So those types of things do exist. It’s just a matter of the individual and the parents of the students doing the work and not being afraid to take a risk.

AD: Okay Hill, those are all of my questions. Thank you again for this interview. Your messages about the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now will really benefit a lot of students and families.

HH: Thank you, Anwar.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Hill Harper in this interview, visit the National Honor Society, and Honor Your Future Now.

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Dr. Jonathan Mathis discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign

Late in 2015, I was approached with an opportunity to conduct an interview with Hill Harper regarding his collaboration with the National Honor Society and its “Honor Your Future Now” campaign.  I was subsequently given the opportunity to interview the director of the National Honor Society Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  The following is my follow up interview with Dr. Mathis.

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An interview was recently granted with Hill Harper to discuss the National Honor Society’s Honor Your Future Now Campaign, an effort to get young people, particularly those planning to go off to college, to think about their next steps.  A second interview was granted this time with the director of the National Honor Society, Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  In this interview Dr. Mathis, who has had a love for education his entire life, as well as helping students actualize their dreams, discusses the importance of families proactively planning for their student’s college education; particularly the all-important financial aspect.  He also discusses resources that the National Honor Society has made available to plan for college, not just for its members, but to all students.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello Jonathan.  First, thank you for this opportunity to interview you and ask you some more questions about Honor Your Future Now.  As you know, I recently spoke with Hill Harper about the campaign. As the Director of the National Honor Society, what can you tell the audience about your organization and the campaign?

Jonathan Mathis:  I can start by giving a few words about Honor Your Future Now.  The National Honor Society and the National Association of Secondary School Principals are really excited about this particular campaign because the narrative is to encourage all students to envision their future selves, and to look at how we can help prepare middle and high school students to start thinking about college, their careers and a lifetime of success.  So for me this campaign is really important and special because we offer expert advice, programs and resources not only to our Honor Society members, but to a general, wider public audience that will focus on helping students to get to, and through college, including how they will pay for college.

AD: Just for a little bit of context here, I want to go back and ask you a basic question.  First I’m going to front it though, by saying that when I was in high school I wasn’t the most focused student academically, and I do remember having a National Honor Society Chapter at my high school (Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY).  For the readers, can you just briefly tell what the National Honor Society is as an organization?  Do you all have chapters at every high school?  What was it set up to do?

JM:  Sure.  For nearly 100 years the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society have empowered students to excel at four key pillars: scholarship, service, leadership and character, with a fifth pillar at the middle school level – citizenship.  The National Honor Societies thus recognize and foster one million students each year to be engaged in their schools, to be empowered to lead change, and to be active in their communities, so when we look at Honor Your Future Now we’re not only talking to our Honor Society members, but to the broader public.  Let’s continue to plan for our future success now.  Let’s cultivate ourselves with experiences and resources that will celebrate who we envision ourselves to be.  There are 25,000 chapters active at the Honor Society and the Junior Honor Society level, at both the high school and middle school levels.

AD:  And just for the lay person, what are the requirements for joining?  Do you have to have a 4.0 grade point average (gpa), for example?

JM:  The national guideline is for students to have at least a 3.0 minimum gpa, and again to celebrate students within their school who have demonstrated scholarship, leadership, service and character.  At the middle level citizenship is important too.  We expect to see students inducted into the National Honor Society who are seen as leaders in their school community, and also in their external community.

AD:  Okay let’s circle back and focus on Honor Your Future Now.  What was the impetus for this campaign?  Why did the National Honor Society feel the need to start this?  It sounds like there’s a component to help students navigate college and it sounds like there’s a financial component as well.  Is there a need to help students navigate college?  Are there skills or values that have been lost?

JM:  You know, you bring up a great question.  There’s been some new research that we commissioned here at the National Honor Society that led us to find that 50% of college-seeking students worry that they’ll be unable to pay for their college education, so when you hear that statistic alone we start to wonder; How can we dismantle the myths?  How do we provide additional resources?  We also found that 40% of the students said that they still need help trying to figure out how to apply for scholarships and 33% of students said that they would need more information just about the process.  Based on that research we developed the additional programming and resources that begin to share this pertinent information, especially at this time of year when most college-seeking students are finding out whether or not they’ve been accepted to their school of choice, and how they may be able to finance their education.

So, for example, we know that Jan. 1 is the opening of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and we encourage students to complete that application and submit their FAFSA as soon as possible because the professionals in the field know that those federal dollars are packaged on a first come first serve basis.  So if we want to help students to address these gaps in information and their concerns about financing their education, we really want to engage families and students as early as possible.  Therefore, providing that expert advice and information can help alleviate many of those concerns.

AD:  Is the Honor Your Future Now Campaign focused for the most part on the financial component or were there other points that you all wanted to address?

JM:  Well, just one other piece about the financial component. On our Honor Your Future Now website, we talk about what students need to think about in terms of being a leader in their school and a successful student. But as we think about this time of year, the conversation in schools across the country is how do you prepare to enroll in college, so we provide timelines for the various academic years and, as we think about college, we offer information in three ways.  We ask students and families to think about their own resources first.  Second, we’re encouraging them to get financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and things of that nature.  Third, we ask students to consider ways to decrease costs.

So when we say consider your own resources, we help provide information around savings accounts and 529 college savings plans and, for our National Junior Honor Society members, the National Honor Society has introduced an outstanding achievement award that could provide students with a savings account.  When we talk about financial aid we’re really getting students to understand the: need-based aid and the merit-based aid, and how to go about completing the FAFSA and to secure the grants, the loans and the federal work study, and the merit based aid.

When we’re talking about reducing college costs, we’re really talking about that pillar of scholarship, to say consider taking the advanced placement and the dual enrollment paths to limit the amount of time and money needed to complete the degree.  Right now we’re highlighting those things because of the time of year, but the Honor Your Future Now Campaign is really talking about a lifetime of success.  How can I become a leader in my community?  In what ways can I give back?  In what ways can I serve?  And given the timeliness of the conversation, we’re really excited about the opportunities and  the resources that we’re providing about getting to and through college.

AD:  You know, I just read something about that in a book called Smart is the New Rich by Christina Romans.  She recommended going through an accelerated program so students could finish early, thereby cutting the costs.  Is that what you were referring to?

JM: Right. Schools may offer a dual enrollment program.  So typically, you’re completing your high school diploma concurrent to your entry level college courses.  You may hear of it described as dual enrollment, early enrollment and concurrent enrollment, or early college-high school where you could potentially earn an associate’s degree before you graduate from high school.

AD:  Okay.  Does that sum up the message you wanted get out to the masses?

JM:  Yes, and it goes to your previous question about what other resources this campaign offers.  We really just encourage students and parents to plan early, think about the potential of a lifetime of success and what we can do now to really bring to light our future selves.  So when you visit the website, of course you’re going to find great information about how to charter a chapter if the school doesn’t have one; we also want to be sure that we’re equipping students to dream big and giving them the resources to make those dreams a reality.

AD:  Jonathan, I’m going to ask you one more question.  I asked Hill this, but as someone who has been as involved with education as you have been, and now overseeing the National Honor Society, in terms of getting today’s students to be successful, i.e. the Millennials, do you think they face any unique academic challenges?  Are there things that are different from when we were coming up in the 80s and the 90s?

JM: You know, I think there is a mix of challenge and opportunity.  When we think about the access to technology and the access to resources such as this website, that might not have existed for us.  I remember when I was looking for scholarships, I was sitting at the public library on snow days or professional development days for teachers.  If I had that day off, I would go look for scholarships.  Now for example, for our National Honor Society members, we just developed a search tool where they can have access to thousands of scholarships that they can apply to based on the pillars.  Those things didn’t exist for us.  So there’s a great deal of accessibility, but the question becomes now, how do we ensure that students who have access to a great amount of information are able to really decipher it in terms of what they need to do to execute those plans, and to achieve those goals, and how do they put it into action?  And when we look at the wide numbers of students to counselors in schools, we want to begin to help students make sense of the information they have access to.

AD:  Do you have any closing words?

JM:  I just want to encourage families and students to take advantage of the Honor Your Future Now campaign and to truly begin to plan for their future success now, and to take advantage of the resources. So continue to ask the questions and seek help to make it all possible.

AD:  Well thank you, Jonathan, for this wonderful opportunity to get this extremely important message out.

JM:  Thank you, Anwar.  I really appreciate your time this afternoon.

AD:  I have one last question concerning your background.  Being director the National Honor Society is a very impressive accomplishment with a far reaching impact.  Were you an educator who slowly worked your way up?  Or did you just happen to drop into this capacity by chance?

JM:   You know, to make a long story short, I always used to play school as kid so I’ve always loved what school looked like.  Professionally, I began my career working in college admissions, and then I served in a post-secondary institution, and then in a secondary school.  I served as the director of college counseling for a charter school, and I also served as an admissions counselor and a multicultural recruiter.  I spent a lot of time doing induction programs for new students.  I completed a Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy with a focus on this conversation we’re having around access and success for students, so my career has been and will continue to be around getting students to and through college.  It’s what I’m most passionate about, and you know, playing school as a kid and growing up on colleges campuses, I know few other places as well as I know colleges and high schools, so it’s truly a pleasure to serve in this capacity.  But it’s been my career and it will continue to be; helping students actualize their dreams.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview Honor Your Future Now.  Also see the National Honor Society’s infographic which describes the three components of paying for college.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview, visit Honor Your Future Now, and the infographic for the steps to applying to college.

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