Collin Cunningham has been awarded the Jack Larson Data for Good Fellowship for his role in leading the SpringForward Foundation in its mission to pair students from underserved communities in Atlanta with near-peer advisors, providing them guidance through the college application process. The fellowship supports Master’s of Information and Data Science (MIDS) students who aim to use data science to benefit society.
As a first-generation college student himself, Cunningham has first-hand experience of how difficult it can be to apply to college in certain parts of the United States. High school students from certain areas, which he calls “educational deserts,” face extraordinary challenges when attempting to pursue higher education. These students are often unlikely to know many others who’ve earned a degree, making the feat seem far-fetched. In addition guidance counselors, whose job it is to guide them in this process, are often overwhelmed with student mental health and safety exigencies, and this lack of resources can seem insurmountable and often deters students from even applying to college.
Thus, Cunningham founded the SpringForward Foundation in 2018 to provide high school students in underserved communities the support they need to successfully navigate the college application process. By pairing students with near-peer advisors, SpringForward has been able to help numerous students apply to colleges that are appropriately aligned with each student’s individual circumstances and academic goals. Even after a student is accepted and enrolled in a college, near-peer advisors continue to give assistance in the form of searching for loans and scholarships, as well as finding housing.
Helping students succeed
The SpringForward Foundation hosts events at high schools to directly reach students who would benefit from their program. By engaging with students directly and helping them see college as a reality, Cunningham has been able to make a significant difference: over the past two years, SpringForward has raised $10,000 in recurring scholarships and worked with over four hundred students. Every single student has successfully completed FAFSA and at least one college application.
To remain true to his pledge to donors that all donations go directly to students, Cunningham has shouldered all of SpringForward’s operating expenses and technology acquisitions himself. “Should I be selected for the Jack Larson Fellowship, it would allow me to allocate further resources to SpringForward and leverage my data science education to make a material and lasting impact in the lives of deserving young people,” wrote Cunningham in his application for the fellowship.
A national crisis
Despite SpringForward finding huge success this past fall engaging with over 300 students in the Atlanta area, and partnering with the 5 Strong Scholarship, which covers full tuition to the top HBCUs in the South for five students every year, the COVID-19 pandemic has, unfortunately, put a halt to their work. With many students unable to participate in virtual meetings due to a lack of resources, as well as setbacks in networking with potential new students and guidance counselors, plans for expansion to neighboring cities have been delayed. In the meantime, Cunningham has been working with another I School alumni, Brandon Cummings, to get the non-profit ATLFamilyMeal up and running. ATLFamilyMeal aims to bring restaurants together to help feed unemployed hospitality workers on a massive scale during the pandemic.
In addition to the COVID-19 crisis, which disproportionately impacts low-income students of color, the recent protests in America against systemic racism and police brutality shine a light on the inequities in the US and, according to Cunningham, remind us how important it is for us to level the playing field when it comes to academia.
This fall Cunningham will begin reaching out to schools in the Boston area to try to gather support for the 2021-2022 school year — it took an entire year of planning before SpringForward could start interacting with students in Atlanta. From there the team will start by setting up large scale FAFSA/single-application days at local schools. “These events give us a chance to interact with students and find those who may need additional support in the application process,” said Cunningham. “I still believe this is a critical service, and we will begin rebuilding as schools open their doors to students.”
As a MIDS student expecting to graduate this summer, Cunningham shared fond sentiments about his time at the I School: “I chose the I School because I believed it had the best curriculum of any data science master’s program. Now in the final weeks of my degree, my expectations have been exceeded.”
He continued, “I am consistently surprised by the aptitude of my peers; I have never been surrounded by such a driven and capable group of people.”