Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

College ABCs: Preparing for higher education at Bethel AME.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Stephen Ampersand.

Still, he was eager to share his experiences with teens and parents attending this year’s Bethel AME Church College Prep Workshop in Harrisburg.

Today, Ampersand is vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at HACC, but, as he told it, it was an uphill journey. Growing up, he spent a year living in a car with his family after his mother lost her job and, subsequently, their home. Following that, they lived in homeless shelters. The family moved around so much that Ampersand attended four different middle schools.

Life’s hardships only fueled his determination to work hard in school and overcome his life circumstances. He went on to earn degrees from Pierce College and Wilmington University before starting a career in education services management in 2004.

“If you study and work hard, you can go to college,” Ampersand said. “You can change not only your life, but your own family tree.”

One-Stop Shop
Since 2016, Bethel AME Church has hosted a college prep workshop geared toward students in grades 9 to 12 and their parents. This year’s event, held in January, attracted 75 attendees, said Myra Blackwell, chair of Bethel AME’s scholarship committee.

“This is not your typical college prep workshop,” Blackwell stressed. “Facilitators from HACC come in and give an overview of steps one must take to prepare for college. HACC also does a panel discussion.”

Half of the facilitators from HACC are part of the president’s cabinet, she said.

“It’s not that often you find people who are in senior-level positions participating in a college prep workshop,” Blackwell said.

HACC speakers kicked off the first half of the three-hour workshop, followed by representatives of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, who discussed financing options.

“This workshop really is a one-stop shop for both students and parents,” Blackwell stated.

The workshop is the brainstorm of Bethel AME’s four-member scholarship committee, chaired by Blackwell. Blackwell said she got the idea while watching a HACC facilitator speak to students at her cousin’s church in Allentown.

“I thought, if they can do it, we can do here,” Blackwell recalled. “I want young people to learn their options. I want them to know that they can go to college or they can learn a trade. I know all of this can be stressful for a young person, and we want to make a little bit easier for them.”

In fact, a small contingent from Allentown’s Union Baptist Church travelled to Harrisburg to attend this year’s workshop.

“We wanted them to get familiarized with the college process,” said Asia Rozier, a youth ministry assistant in Allentown.

Keep Pushing
Ryanna Hendricks, a ninth-grader at Central Dauphin East High School, came to the workshop with her sister Serena, a CD East 11th-grader.

“I came here to learn more about HACC, scholarships and financial aid,” she explained.

Ryanna said she’d like to earn a four-year college degree and become an endodontist, a dental disease specialist. Serena plans to become a college business major and eventually open up her own business, she said.

Reshon Ross, an 11th-grader at Dauphin County Technical School, attended the workshop with sister Ayanna and their mother, Monika Ross.

“I’m here just to get some experience, to see what I can get out of college and see what I can be,” said Reshon, who is in the small engine equipment technology program at DC Tech.

“I’ve gotten some good information here today,” Monika Ross noted.

The HACC portion of the workshop closed with alumni sharing stories. Like Ampersand, none of the graduates who spoke appeared to have a straight, easy path to success, but they made it despite the odds.

Johnny Birch, Jr., is a 2011 HACC graduate who studied business, hospitality and tourism. Today, he is owner and operator of Carlisle Tae Kwon Do & Fitness Academy.

“I came from a single-parent home, barely had anything,” Birch recalled. “I was really mad and beat things up. I was a bully.”

Birch’s mother and guidance counselor sent him to martial arts classes as a way to channel his aggression in a more positive manner. The strategy worked, and he later became a martial arts state champion.

After that, Birch joined the military.

“For six years, I was a first-class athlete,” he said. “Then my body started to give out, and I didn’t know what to do.”

After a brief stint as a musician, Birch decided to open a business, but, he said, “didn’t know the right people.” Then he enrolled in HACC and, soon after, 50 people filled his martial arts studio.

Hagir Elsheikh graduated from HACC in 2011 with a degree in health careers. Today, she is founder and CEO of HSE Staffing Agency, LLC, a health care staffing firm.

“HACC changed my life,” Elsheikh told the workshop crowd. “We’re not here to set your destination, we’re just here to share our experiences. Regardless of what you go through, you can keep pushing. It is you who can decide what you want your future to be.”

Bethel AME Church is located at 1721 N. 5th St., Harrisburg. For more information about the church, visit their Facebook page: I Go to Bethel.

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