Sean Vereen, Ed.D. ’95 serves as President of Steppingstone Scholars, an educational social mobility organization that helps low-income students in Philadelphia to navigate pathways to college and the workforce. Building on the leadership skills he learned at George School, Sean is leading a growing organization that is impacting the lives of students and their families.
Sean’s formative experiences at George School influenced the trajectory of his career at every juncture. Sean reflected on his time at George School, “It was during meeting for worship, when I stood up for the first time in the aftermath of the LA riots, that I found my voice. I was so nervous to break the silence in front of the entire school, but I ended up speaking a lot in Meeting. George School is the place where I started my leadership journey. I was a dorm president, a prefect, captain of the track team, and even joined a faculty committee that looked at housing and facilities on campus. There were no students on the committee. I asked to be a part of what they were doing, was able to join and have a voice in that room, which to me, is part of what makes the George School experience unique. The leadership opportunities, the friendships I built, and learning to live amongst people my age set me up to keep growing after I left.”
After George School, Sean went on to the University of Rochester and then to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. “I ended up dating and then marrying someone who lived in the dorms, so I lived around or on a campus from the time I was fourteen until my early thirties,” Sean shared. “Living on a campus at such a young age made a huge impression on me. I was able to witness the power of education and the power of institutions and how the individual shapes and pushes them. My career in higher education was just an extension of my education experience at George School.”
While at the University of Rochester, Sean internalized the Quaker values learned at George School and set off to make a difference in his new home. “I organized a large protest on campus and was the speaker of the student senate,” Sean described. “In the midst of graduating, there was a huge racial incident involving the Rochester Police, and I was a member of the University team investigating it. During that experience, one of the administrators saw my passion and said, ‘You know, you can go to school for this kind of work, right?’ I was shocked but realized that it was my path. I fell in love with the University of Pennsylvania, got my Master’s and Doctorate there, and continued working in the space. I find higher ed institutions to be fascinating and frustrating but a place where amazing things can happen. I probably had five or six different jobs at Penn in the diversity field, and got to see the work of non-profits, like College Horizons, Questbridge, and Posse [Foundation]. I was the on-campus Coordinator for the Posse program. As much as I loved being at Penn, when I visited Posse’s headquarters in New York, I saw the work of helping kids and realized that you could do this work all day, which interested me.”
In Philadelphia, Sean met with several community-based organizations and wandered into the Steppingstone office. “I was only supposed to be there for thirty minutes and ended up being there for over an hour and a half and Steppingstone asked me to join the board as an ex-officio member to get some higher ed representation,” continued Sean. “The President role opened during a time of a state budget crisis, and a crisis with Philadelphia’s public schools. Everything seemed to be falling apart, which I came to learn was just the state of a lot of things in Philly. I felt like Steppingstone was a place where I would be able to make a difference in the lives of young people. It was a place where I could take all the things I learned at GS, Rochester, and Penn, and really use that towards issues of economic and educational opportunity for kids. Sitting at the desk at Steppingstone, having left Penn where I grew up, was kind of like standing up for the first time during meeting for worship, unsure of what to say and a little nervous, staring out across a sea of five hundred faces. I kept asking myself, ‘what have I done?’ but in reality, it was the best decision I could have ever made.”
Steppingstone Scholars has grown significantly during Sean’s time as President. He has taken the organization to new levels through his hard work and determination to live the organization’s mission in helping students. Sean reflected, “We have built this organization from a $1.2 million budget to almost $5 million now, serving close to 2,500 kids across the City of Philadelphia and we are in the midst of a merger with Philadelphia Futures, where we will be serving 3,000 kids off the bat and will have room to grow to up to 5,000 kids with a $12 million budget and $30 million endowment. All of this comes from the leadership opportunities, the influence of people like Scott Hoskins, Tom English, Pippa Porter Rex, and others like them who made a difference in my life and changed the trajectory of what I was going to do.”
“I have had the great privilege of being a part of institutions that have made space for people like me but are not made for people like me,” continued Sean. “As we build Steppingstone and in the merger with Philadelphia Futures, our hope is to build an institution for the very kids we are serving who are not served well by the existing institutions in American life and certainly in the City. Poverty in Philadelphia has been over 20% for longer than I have been alive so there is a lot of work to do. At Steppingstone, we are not a charity that is in the business of saving people. We are serving the kids as they deserve to be treated because they are kids who are not perfect all the time. At GS, I went to school with kids who have a ton of resources, and they were certainly not perfect all the time. It did not matter at GS if you came from a family with resources or were a kid coming from Philly. You were a part of that place. We have to think that way in this City. I can’t think of a better place to be than sitting in the space between universities, K-12 schools, businesses, and companies that are trying to create a space for these kids that need to be served and speak the gospel around the necessity for investing in them and caring about them.”
Steppingstone Scholars operates with a dual mandate of helping students interested in pursuing higher education and students who are focused on entering the workforce after graduation. “The reality is that we are very much a college-focused organization,” Sean said. “There is a 15% college graduation rate in Philly, with an even lower rate for black and brown students. We need more college graduates coming out of the public school system who are from here. We also know that half of the students who graduate from Philly public schools do not go directly into college after graduation. That is a fact. When we are not serving that 50% of kids, we are missing out on what the path of an education should be. Education is vastly important but is an imperfect system. We need to connect education to economic opportunity. Steppingstone helps graduates get certification, find internships, connect with local businesses, or find skills that will help them earn in the workforce. It is very hard work, and we have not figured everything out, but there is a real power in being part of an organization where we are sending kids to Penn and also sending kids who are coming out of the foster system back to help people with the same experiences. Kids are complex and may decide to pursue college after working, so it is important for them to get exposure to both the professional and educational environments.”
“By being able to serve students coming out of high school and college gives us an expertise and leverage with employers,” continued Sean. “We need to create a better market for our kids, make more space for them at different institutions, and give them access to opportunities. Our big thing is internships that lead to jobs. Every organization and institution in the country, and particularly in Philadelphia, has to be focused on the talent pathway for our low income black and brown populations and for our new to this country populations who are going to be left behind. Everybody has a place to help. If people want to mentor, come talk at career days, create job opportunities, or give to Steppingstone, we are here.”
Visit the Steppingstone Scholars website to learn more.