Kelly Miller was fresh out of college and working for J.P. Morgan in New York City when she first began volunteering for Minds Matter. The nonprofit, started by six Wall Street professionals in 1991, prepares low-income high school students for college through an intense, three-year mentorship program. When Miller returned to Minneapolis in 2011, one of the first things she did was set up a Twin Cities Minds Matter chapter. All 24 students who graduated from the program were accepted to four-year colleges. Miller, a vice president and wealth manager with J.P. Morgan Private Bank, continues to lead the local chapter, which has an annual budget of about $145,000.
Q: How do students learn about the program?
A: We typically work with guidance counselors to help us identify students who qualify for a free or reduced lunch and have a minimum GPA of 3.0. Ours have an average of around 3.5 or 3.6. We have a rigorous application process that includes an essay, some short-answer questions, a letter of recommendation and an in-person interview.
Q: How does the mentorship program work?
A: It’s a three-year program, starting when students are sophomores. We found if we wait until the junior year, there’s too much catch-up, academically. Many are first-generation college students. We want to make sure they’re taking the right coursework, doing the right extracurriculars, and doing everything to look competitive relative to their peers who might have a lot more opportunities. Students spend four hours with us every Saturday from October through May, except for school and national holidays. Two hours are for academic enrichment and two hours are mentoring time. The University of St. Thomas Minneapolis campus provides space for us, and Kaplan donates their test prep materials.
Q: Do the mentors stay with the same student for all three years?
A: That’s the goal, and we’ve had a lot of success with that. There actually are a number of volunteers who are still involved in the organization who go back to when we started in the Twin Cities six years ago, which is amazing when you think about how time-intensive this program is. Part of the reason we assign two mentors is that people take jobs, get married and have other life events. If we have two mentors, we feel pretty confident at least one person will be consistent throughout those three years. Most of our mentors are young professionals, and all are passionate about education and working with young people.
Q: Does Minds Matter provide scholarships, too?
A: Minds Matter doesn’t directly pay for college. However, we’re helping students find schools that provide generous financial aid packages. We help them with college applications, financial aid applications, scholarship applications — and ultimately review the different acceptance packages to make sure we find the best fit. After both the sophomore and junior years, we send the students to summer enrichment programs at leading universities across the country and internationally, which is where the bulk of our budget goes.
Q: How does your work with Minds Matter fit into your job as an investment manager?
A: It gives me a framework for understanding why a charitable legacy might be so important. I work with a number of very successful families around the Twin Cities and Minnesota, generally with net worth of $2 million and higher, and philanthropy is important to a lot of those families. Because of the satisfaction and passion I have for Minds Matter, and seeing students succeed because of the work we’re doing, I get why my clients get really excited about organizations where they’re intimately involved, whether its volunteering directly or serving on a board of a nonprofit or giving substantial dollars to support those organizations.
Q: What is it about Minds Matter that speaks to you?
A: The thing that caught my eye initially was that we were working with students who had an interest in working with us. Oftentimes when you’re tutoring or doing mentoring, the student is required to be there as opposed to wanting to be there. The students we’re working with are impressive when they come to the program. But there are tremendous obstacles that stand in the way of them truly having college success. We’re changing the trajectory of students’ future and that of their families by being able to set them up for college success and having them graduate.
Q: What would you most like people to know about Minds Matter?
A: Sometimes people look at us and say, you don’t serve that many students. What I hope people know is that this is a rigorous and intensive program. It’s not meant to serve 1,000 students in the Twin Cities. We are going deep with these students, with a truly remarkable success rate. Our national organization, which is having its 25th-year anniversary, can say that 94 percent of alumni who are 28 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. Broader population college graduation rates are nowhere close to that.