Conversation about “Say Yes”

Marisol Hernandez CNY Latino Editor in Chief conducted an interview with Ahmeed Turner, Say Yes Executive Director. A candid conversation about his upbringing and the released of Say Yes latest report card. CNY Latino highlighted Say Yes because it is still here making such a big impact on local kids.

by Marisol Hernandez

Marisol: Well, hello, everyone. We are here today having a virtual cup of coffee with our newest guest, which he is doing a very important role in our  community. And we are looking forward to hearing what’s going on with the project that he is in charge of, and what impact has it had in our community? And how can people register or be part of it? But before we get to that, let’s just introduce our guests and ask him a little bit about himself. So, we have and I hope I’m gonna pronounce it right. Ahmeed Turner, the Executive Director for Say Yes to Education. Welcome.!

Ahmeed: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it and yes, you said my name right. Marisol, I’m very impressed. Thank you.

Marisol: Great. So, before we go into talking about Say Yes to Education, tell us a little bit about Ahmeed, who is Ahmeed.? And, you know, where did you grow up and a little bit about yourself.

Ahmeed: Absolutely. So, I am a native Syracusan. I grew up in Syracuse. I’m 44 years old. I went to the Syracuse City School District for almost my entire schooling. I went there starting in kindergarten. I did go to Bishop Grimes for two years in high school, I went for 10th and 11th grade. Long story short, my ninth- grade year, my parents thought that maybe I needed a change of scenery (laugh). So, I went to Bishop Grimes, and then I begged them to come back to I’ve started at Nottingham, and I beg them to let me come back to Nottingham so thankfully, and graciously, they allowed me to go back for my senior year. My family is from Syracuse, starting with my grandmother who migrated to Syracuse from Atlanta, Georgia. My grandfather, I believe, is from Mississippi. And I have participated in a lot of activities over the years. One of the things that I did in my childhood was I played Pop Warner football for Sherman Park. And that’s really where I met a lot of friends all over the Syracuse community. My mom is a retired educator. My dad is a pastor at Bethany Baptist Church. And I can say, you know, I guess just from being around or though osmosis, I developed a very strong belief in education. I believe that it has changed the world and continues to change the world, the more people are educated, and we know for a fact that it’s the number one most effective bridge out of poverty and is the number one indicator for quality of life. And so, I always promoted. I don’t think that college is the end all be all for everyone. But I definitely think that it offers folks an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives.

Marisol: I hear that you then play some sports, did you go to college with a sport scholarship or not?

Ahmeed: No, I wish I had continued to play. But when I got to college, so my college journey doesn’t start right after high school, I took a year off. I tried to join the Army and it didn’t work out for me because I had parking tickets. So, (laugh) I came back to Syracuse to worked and then when I went to college, I was really focused on my academics. That kind of headed that year in between was good for me to, you know, kind of think about life and figure out what I wanted to do. And so, and I also, you know, the new freedom that I had after high school, I think I played all that out within that year. So, when I did start college, I was a lot more focused on what my end goal was.

Marisol: What did you go to college for? And what university did you go?

Ahmeed: So, I went to Cheyney State University. It’s in Pennsylvania, it’s about 20 minutes west of Philadelphia. It is a historically Black College University, really the first in the nation. Even though some folks from Lincoln might say otherwise. But I went there for psychology. I got a Bachelor’s in psychology and then from there, I worked for a little while. And then I went to Syracuse University for a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. Then I worked for a little while again, and I went to Notre Dame for a master’s in Nonprofit Administration.

Marisol: So, having the experience of going to different universities, and not only that, but as you mentioned, in high school or in school, you went to different schools. What was the most impactful in your life in terms of that experience between going to public school, private school and then different universities?

Ahmeed: Yeah, it was umm. It was a very unique experience that provided me with perspective, just culturally, at Bishop Grimes, this is a private Catholic school. I just saw a different way of education being administered.

Also, amongst my friends, and I made many friends at Bishop Grimes, I’m still friends with today. I experienced a different way to relate to other people.

And I think that really helped me transition back to Nottingham. And it helped me when I went to college, you know, just, I don’t know… It helped me socially, to reach out and branch out and make new friends and do different things. It also, I think, allowed me to absorb other cultures more easily. So, when I went to Cheney State, that it’s very heavily populated with people from Philadelphia. They talk differently, they walk differently, they do a lot of things different than folks from Syracuse. And fortunately, for me, I feel like I was able to absorb that while maintaining my roots. So you know, I didn’t develop some sort of Philadelphia accent, I didn’t do any of that stuff, but I respected it. And you know, at that particular time, I really felt like I was part of the community. So, you know, oftentimes even here, even though I’m a native here, sometimes folks will ask if I’m from Syracuse, yeah, I’m from Syracuse. But I think just my different experiences have allowed me to just be uniquely me, while at the same time being able to respect other cultures.

Marisol: Well, I, um, we normally interview people of Hispanic descent and these interviews are usually conducted in Spanish. We have decided that the topic and what you represent, it’s important enough for our community to hear about and know about, and I know that in our community, family ties are very strong. Religion and being part of, you know, that kind of culture, it’s really important, but it’s also important to embrace wherever you’re at and learn the rules and the regulations and the culture of the place that you’re leaving at. So as a Hispanic, hearing your talk and telling me different things that you’ve experienced, I think that it explains also how I myself, I’m able to kind of navigate and be in different roles, even though I still keep my culture I still keep my language and I run my family the way that our family was run way back. Is that the same case with you?

Ahmeed: Absolutely the same case. Exactly what you said, you know, just one, with family. I’m very family oriented and I know and recognize that I am always representing my family and all that I do, and I take pride in that. And then just you know, like you said from a cultural perspective, I am deeply rooted my parents and my family, really at an early age, educated my siblings and I with an eye on African American history in the United States. And even more, so there’s some history on, you know, prior to the slave trade, but some of the customs were from Africa, not a huge, you know, they didn’t talk to us a lot about that. But they definitely at a very, very early age talked about African American history and the path that a lot of folks took from then to now.

Marisol: Yeah. And you mentioned education and how important you thought and you value education in your life. Can you tell us a little bit about how that education helped you into getting in the different job opportunities that you’ve had, including what you’re doing nowadays?

Ahmeed: Yes. So, I’ve always felt like, you know, probably from my mom, that education was just the thing, right? So, you go to school, and then you go to college, I think when I went to college is when I realized that it really opens up multiple opportunities. So, I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology. I then went to work for Elmcrest Children’s Center, right here in Syracuse. And then from there, I actually moved to Washington, DC, and I was there for well, excuse me. After that, I then worked for the Center for Community Alternatives with violence prevention, which was also a great job. And then I moved to Washington, DC, I actually spent about five years in Washington DC. And the jobs I had there didn’t really have a direct connection to psychology, I worked with an organization called St. Luke’s house. And then I worked with an organization called City Here. And you know, those are I think the education that I had just having a bachelor’s degree indicated to those employers that I’m able to think critically about how to solve a problem. And know that I have the persistence to keep doing whatever it is I have to do until I get it right or until we are successful. So right in college, when I started looking for different types of jobs and stuff, there wasn’t a direct connection to the job description saying psychology and me. It was just a job description and I thought that maybe I would fit the mold in that and I started applying. Fast forward to where I am right now, when I started working, I worked for Say Yes Syracuse, which was originally Saying Yes to Education in 2009. There were some correlations to marriage and family therapy. I had that degree at that time, but much of it was education, much of it was working with building administrations, much of it was being able to identify students that are in need, and much of it was sitting with a team and working collaboratively to develop interventions that would help that particular student that’s in need, be it social, emotional, academic, or just getting them connected to resources.

Marisol: That sounds like a great opportunity. And I mean, it’s working with people. So, I’m pretty sure that everything that you learn in school helped you do what you need to do. And not only that, but I mean, I could think personally about my stepdaughter who graduated from Lemoyne College with a psychology degree and started at Elmcrest and a few months after that I got an opportunity to work for another organization and right now, she’s looking into something else. So looking at, you know, the qualification she has the experience she has, and then looking at what will be a best fit for her in her own skills and what she likes to do best is what’s driving her to also change jobs even though she had a great opportunity with that first job two weeks right out of college, which I thought it was amazing. But this is the same opportunity that I believe our Hispanic community needs in their life. And being part of Say Yes, how does that program helps, you know, a student and what’s the transition, you start when you are in elementary and then you’re like, how does somebody get involved and tell me that trajectory until they end up with the scholarship program?

Ahmeed: And it’s connected to all of these things that happen when students are in school, right? So when Say Yes first partnered with the Syracuse City School District, and the city of Syracuse and Onondaga county and Syracuse University, and Central New York Community Foundation. Say Yes had seed funding. And they brought all these players to the table and said, “How can we think differently about supporting students? And how can we offer them a level playing field in the path to post-secondary education, whether it’s college or something else?” So when, when they did that the partners thought about, okay, we want to get rid of all of the barriers that get in the way of classroom participation. So, when Say Yes, first came, a lot of people associate Say Yes as an after-school programs, and summer programs. And that was one of the first things we could do to bring everybody together, and really start to mobilize a movement. And then in the movement at that particular time, we thought all of our students have gifts and talents. And we just need to give them opportunities to draw those things out. We also thought that, Marisol, if you look in any community, students that participate in extracurricular activities were better in the classroom. And so, it was an opportunity to do two things to draw out some, you know, skills and talents and students have to also enrich their classroom activity with extra-curricular activities. So that’s how we started. A student doesn’t have to participate in those things to get the scholarship, though, they were just developed to help students along the way. And also, something that’s happening in all the schools now is there’s positions called Family Support Specialists, they’re there to help with the building administration, identify students that are struggling. And that’s not always like behavior, or whatever else. They also try to target students, there’s a lot of students, I’m sure, even in the Latino community, there’s a lot of students that could go either way, they’re not huge behavior problems, but they do just enough to keep the teacher off their back, right.! So, we really, at that particular time, wanted to target those students, because we knew that if we could draw them out a little bit more, they would, they would Excel.

So that’s happening in all of the schools, something else is happening is there are mental health facilities and all the schools in that facility are people. So, a student that needs that type of support, doesn’t have to leave campus to get it. And then there’s behavior promise on behavior specialists that will, I’m sure, as you can imagine a student that needs that type of support. You can’t just drop them back in the class with the expectation that they’re going to be able to function. So, a behavior specialist will help them transition back into the class and they’ll, you know, they’ll spend as long as it takes to do that, sometimes it could take up to an hour, sometimes it could take you know, half the day. So that leading up to the scholarships: one, you know, we wanted to make college affordable for everyone. A huge barrier all across the country for folks in college is the cost. College is not a cheap endeavor, especially if you want to live on campus. And if you know, depending on if you want to eat three times a day, or if you want to eat two times a day, it can be very costly. So, the partners came up with the tuition guarantee, which is a last dollar scholarship. And the last dollar just means that you have to complete a FAFSA application, which is a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And if you go to school in New York State, you have to complete a Tab Application, which is the Tuition Assistance Program and if you qualify for a Federal Pell Grant, and or a New York State Tap Grant, Say Yes Syracuse will apply those grants towards tuition. And if there’s a gap, after the grants have been applied towards tuition, we will cover that gap. So as a tuition guarantee to make college more affordable and as you know, a lot of students are taking advantage of that.

Marisol: That sounds amazing. And it’s a big help. As somebody who put two kids through college, I understand how expensive it can be.

Ahmeed: I was gonna say, I wish this was around for me, I’m still paying my student loan.

Marisol: Right, right. And, you know, it’s also an opportunity for people who could never get student loans, and we’re able to manage and do certain things so that we can afford that kind of opportunity for our kids. But many people don’t, and they don’t even themselves have gone to college. In our Hispanic community, many of them don’t even know what’s available here. So how do people know. I remember when Say Yes to Education started way back when… And how big of a campaign it was out there. And like you mentioned it’s now a movement, it has transferred itself to something different, but how do people hear about it? It’s kind of died down and we didn’t hear much about it. Not a big campaign at all. So how can people hear about it, and how can people benefit or register or sign up for that?

Ahmeed: Yes. So there’s, I believe that there are, there is some good that came as a result of that. But there’s also some opportunities that come as a result of that. The good thing is that, I think came as a result of that is that Onondaga County, the Syracuse City School District, the city of Syracuse, and our other partners really thought systemically about how we are going to support students. So a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a building administrator, she had just moved to Syracuse from wherever she was from and so I started talking about Say Yes and the seed funding and absolute programs and family support specialists and the legal service through volunteer lawyers project. I started talking about all that stuff and she said, “Wow, I didn’t know that was part of some sort of Say Yes initiative. I just thought it was the way you all did things here”. And I took that positively, as we’ve really changed the way we support students. This is not a program or an initiative, it is a systemic wholesale change. I think the opportunity is that as those things began to change. From a Say Yes perspective, I think there was an assumption that people just know about Say Yes now, so we don’t have to promote it as heavily anymore. People just know about the scholarships as part of the fabric of what they do now. And that was an opportunity lost. And so, we really want to get back in front of folks and let them know that there’s this wonderful scholarship, there’s this tuition guarantee, if you want to go to college. And to take advantage of that you don’t have to go to any of those programs or anything like that, even though I would advise that you do because it’s a wonderful opportunity. All you have to do Marisol is you have to be a resident of Syracuse and you have to be in the Syracuse City School District for at least three consecutive years to graduation. So that’s 10th 11th and 12th grade, or for a high achieving student ninth 10th and 11th grade. That’s it. There is no GPA requirement. You don’t have to write an essay for the scholarship, nothing like that you just have to meet the eligibility criteria. Now I will say that you have to be attending one of our partner colleges, which is the entire state university system, and a bunch of private colleges all over the place you can find on our website and you have to get accepted on your own. So, when you apply to those schools, if you go and you tell them “Oh, I’m Say Yes, that doesn’t mean you automatically get accepted, they’re still going to check you out and see if you’re a good student for their institution. But if you are accepted, you get the tuition guarantee and that’s just a great opportunity.

Marisol: Well, definitely it’s a conversation that will take more than just a one-time thing. I wanted to share with our audience the report card, that your office sent me. So, I don’t know if you can see my screen.

Ahmeed: Yeah.

Marisol: So, talk to me about this report. I mean, report cards are huge, right? The kids get it from the beginning. I thought it was amazing that you guys call it a report card. So, tell me about Say Yes Report Card and these numbers…

Ahmeed: Yes. So what we’re looking at is report card from the 2019 – 2020 year. And I’ll just, I’ll just go down the report card. So next to the pig with the graduation cap on, you’ll see in bold, the total that we spent in the 2019 – 2020 year, which is over a million dollars is $1,065,551 annually Marisol we’re right at around 1.1 or 1.2. That’s a little below that. But we spend over a million dollars a year on scholarships. What you see there, we have three different types of scholarship opportunities we have. So, there’s a tuition award, which I talked about is the last dollar scholarship. There’s a choice grant, and that’s offered to students that go to private partner colleges whose family income is above $75,000, we have something called a choice grant. So, for the tuition award, we awarded close to $600,000. For the choice grant, we awarded $165,000. And for something called an opportunity grant, this is awarded to students that go to a State University of New York College and they have enough Federal Pell in New York State Tap Grants to cover tuition. So, we know that tuition is not the end all be all in the cost of attendance at any college. So students that fall into that situation and live on campus or campus affiliated housing, get an opportunity grant for $2,000 that they could apply towards books, towards room and board, towards student fees, and all of these other things that a lot of folks don’t necessarily think about when they’re thinking about the cost of attendance. The other thing is, for a lot of first-generation students, there’s education we do on tuition, and the cost of attendance. Tuition does not cover everything. So, we often talk about, you know, when you’re in high school right now you can use a computer, you can go to the gym and play basketball, you can do all these different things in college, they charge you for that. So, you can go to a college campus and use any the computers. But guess what, there’s something called a technology fee. You can go to the gym and play basketball. And guess what, there’s something called a student activity fee. So, there’s a lot of education we do around that. What you see there $17 million is what we’ve been able to leverage. So, because we’re last dollar scholarship, every student has to complete a FAFSA application. Because we’re last dollar scholarship. Every student has to complete a New York State Tap Application and because of the relationship we have with our college partners, they receive institutionally, they also receive other federal grants, there’s something called a Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant that students can be eligible for. There is work studies, and there’s institutional scholarships as soon as could take advantage of so that $17 million represents all of the funds that students can leverage as a result of being a Say Yes scholar in getting the last out of scholarship.

Right there a scholarship funds to date. We’ve spent over $12 million since inception in 2008. Well really, we first started awarding in 2009 and we have been able to leverage over $144 million in outside external aid, and that includes all of the different eight levers that I talked about. When you look at us by scholars, we have a large number of students that attend to 2-year universities were at 58% and 42% attend four-year colleges and then to the left of that graph, that circle graph, you can see public versus private. And the majority of our students attend public universities 76% and 24%. Attended private. That’s something I think, really shows our, our students in our community, it really shows our community’s character and our students grit is what you see by the numbers. So, for Say Yes Syracuse scholars first year to second year persistence rates were at 79%. That is 5% higher than the national average. In that particular year, the national average was 74%.

And Marisol, what this means to us is that our students have grit, and a tremendous amount of resilience. I mean, you know, if you ask me, anyone that grew up in Syracuse, if you can make it through the winter, you can make it through anything. So, we know that our students not necessarily perform academically the best, but are able to face adversity and overcome it. Where you see percentage of high school students that attend that matriculate from high school to college within that year, we’re at 63% and we want to bolster that percentage point. Like I said, you know, I don’t say that college is the end all be all for everyone. But what I do say is that, hopefully, while students are in high school, they begin to have foresight, and think about what their plan is, after high school, if you see college is part of that plan, we’re here for you. We want to make it affordable; we want to level the playing field. But if you have other plans, you know, I, my hope is that as long as you are planning, as long as you see a future for yourself, then you’re on the right path. But if you’re not planning that at all, you know, you might want to consider college as an option. You don’t have to have your plan figured out to go to college and start, you can just go there. You don’t even have to have a major in your first year, you can just go and figure out what it is you want to do. And that’s probably the best path rather than completing high school into sitting around and trying to figure out what you’re going to do.

When we see the breakdown there, there are more people that identify as women that are matriculating to college than those of men. And then if you look at the graduation rates, something that we are… I think as a community proud of and yet needs more work is the graduation rates at the level now. So Marisol in 2008, when say yes to education, first partnered with the community. One, the overall graduation rate was below 50%. It was like 48.6%, that has trended up every single year. Since Say Yes has partnered with the community. This particular year, you’ll see that the graduation rate, especially amongst the Latino population, went up a lot. In 2019, the graduation rate was at 59% and then 2020, their graduation rate was at 70%. It exceeded the white population and it’s right there neck to neck with the black population. So, we know that that’s not all directly due to Say Yes, and all of this stuff. It’s a collaborative effort. But I also think that in that timeframe that there are there has been a lot of things happening in the Latino community to support students in their education path as well. And so we just, you know, laud all of the efforts that the entire community is putting together to really carve out a bright future for our community. And the other thing is you know, especially given things that are happening socially with the pandemic, and with the death of George Floyd. I think an important message that Say Yes and the partners have is that we value all of our, I guess you could say minority populations, all of the black and brown people in our community are valued, we know that you are gifted and we know that you have value to add to our community. And so, we want to provide you with whatever opportunities we can and you see an educational opportunity for yourself, we want to do that. And you know, lastly, before I get off, I also want to note that there are a lot of great organizations that are here to help. On Point for College is a great organization. If you’re a middle school, Hillside work, scholarship is a great organization to start with. And you know, I don’t want to leave anybody out. There’s a bunch of them out in the community that will help you with your path to college, if that’s what you choose.

To find out more, please read our 2019-2020 Report Card.

Marisol: Yeah, that’s definitely I mean, I have known for a long time that Syracuse is a very heavy in resources community. So, there’s tons of stuff out there for the community. And how can people get in contact with Say Yes, if they have any other questions? Or where can they look up? Do you have your website? Can you tell us your phone number?

Ahmeed: Yes, so if students, if you want more information about Say Yes, you can go to our website at sayyessyracuse.org. There, you’ll find all of the college partners we have. Like I said, is the entire state university system and you can see and find all the schools there. We also partner with over 100 private partner college schools. And you can find the list there. And Marisol is delineated by state. So, if you want to look at colleges, we partner with just in New York State, you can’t even name them all.

We also have college partners in California, we have a few in Texas, we have some down south, they’re there, they’re everywhere. I can’t even name them all. And then to sign up so you can complete our application. You must be a senior in high school, you must be in 12th grade. And you can do it at any point, your 12th grade year, but we highly advise that you complete our application, when you know which college or university you’re going to go to. We do that because a lot of times at the beginning of their senior year, someone will complete the application. And they won’t tell us what school they’re going to because they don’t know yet. And then in the summertime, they’ll say well, I did the application back in September. And we go and look it up and we say alright, you did the application, but we don’t know which college you’re going to. So, we advise that you wait until you know which college and to complete the application on our website go to sayyessyracuse.org there’s a button that says apply now. You click the Apply Now button, and the rest is self-explanatory. You know, your name, address, date of birth, that type of thing.

Marisol: Well, thank you for your time. And is there anything else you want to say before we close?

Ahmeed: Yes, something that I didn’t mention is that as Say Yes kind of evolved over time, say yes to education, Inc, discontinued its programmatic functions. And Say Yes Syracuse transitioned into the Central New York Community Foundation. And so it’s a great home for us because the Community Foundation is a steward of the endowment. And it’s a great home for us because the Community Foundation has over 90 years of Philanthropy in the Syracuse and Central New York Community. And so, being here is just a great fit for the scholarships because we plan for the scholarships to continue hopefully forever, but at least for many, many years now.

Marisol: That sounds great. Good luck. And I wish you success with everything that you’re doing not only in Say Yes, but everything else that you will do in this community. Thank you for contributing and we look forward to hearing more and seeing how everything goes even better and bigger.

Ahmeed: And thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Feel free to contact Say Yes Syracuse directly at

Say Yes Syracuse
431 East Fayette Street
Syracuse, NY 13202

or by emailing Dana Lyons at dlyons@sayyessyracuse.org or calling (315) 883 – 5555

The photos were taken from the Say Yes Syracuse website and the report card was provided by them.

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