Oscar Wang '14 Has a New Take on Higher Ed
Wang is the CEO of CollegeTogether, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Philadelphia’s underserved students through the college admissions process, and recently started Hospitality Together, a program that places ambitious college-age youth in paying jobs at some of the city’s top restaurants and prepares them for careers in the industry.
Every year during college admissions season,we see news reports and articles about a few high-performing students who get into every one of the dozens of colleges they applied to, or who score full rides to Ivy League schools. But what about their classmates—the students who might not be star scholars but also deserve to fulfill their potential and have a chance at better lives?
That’s the problem Oscar Wang ’14 is working to solve as the CEO of College Together, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Philadelphia’s underserved students through the college admissions process. But in the five years since the program started, he’s seen that a traditional path through higher education doesn’t always result in a diploma and a good-paying career-track job for students working to get out of poverty. That’s why he partnered with restaurateur Judy Ni, owner of Taiwanese street food spot Baology in Philadelphia, to develop Hospitality Together, a new program that places ambitious college-age youth in paying jobs at some of the city’s top restaurants. They earn while learning the ropes of an in-demand business and receive training that can lead to a lifelong career while building their professional networks, completing flexible online coursework, and receiving mentorship from star chefs. And Philly’s booming hospitality industry, which is experiencing the same nationwide labor crunch affecting other great dining cities, stands to benefit as the program raises the next generation of industry leaders. Wang sat down with Haverford to tell us how the values instilled in him during his college years—community and belonging, curiosity and autonomy, and the inherent worth of every student—inspired this bold new approach to higher education.
What was your own college application process like?
I came from a family where there was no question that I would go to college, but the conception of college was just that—an idea. My dad went to college in Taiwan, and my mom never finished high school; she was a refugee from the Vietnam War. My parents were very upfront about the fact that they knew nothing about American college. But there was word of mouth in the immigrant community in my hometown in California, and I was lucky enough to go to a school where expectations were very high. One of the things that drives my work today is that I never felt like I was successful in the traditional academic sense, which is how a lot of people in this pressure-cooker environment were judged. I graduated right in the middle of my class.
What made you choose Haverford?
Haverford was a place where nobody really talked about grades, an egalitarian place where people put pressure on themselves, but not on one another. I wanted that environment where everyone had a sense of worth that wasn’t just tied to how you did in school.
How did your own college experience inform the work you’re doing now?
When I got to Haverford, I wanted to study education—teaching, administration, policy, reform, whatever. Heather Curl ’03 [a lecturer in the Bi-Co Education Program] taught me not just about pedagogy and policy but that every student has worth, and you should never question their character without fully knowing them and their situation. I took a class called “Social Movement Theory” with [Associate Professor of Political Science] Steve McGovern, then his course “Grassroots Politics in Philadelphia,” which included a day spent interning each week. Mine was at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook [founded by Paul Soccolar ’77]. At the time there was a lot going on with the School Reform Commission (SRC). They were dealing with a billion-dollar deficit, and I did a lot of work covering the first nine school closings. I turned those connections into a Samuel S. Fels Fellowship for the SRC the next two summers. I went back my senior year while writing my thesis to become an intern for the Strategy Delivery Unit. I got to see the political, policy, data, and financial sides of the district, and that was the backbone of my education around Philadelphia schools.
What was it like to work with the School Reform Commission?
Going into classrooms and observing students, meeting teachers, meeting middle managers and staffers; going into schools with the Civics & Rhetoric program I implemented—all that led me to become very attached to Philly schools and realize that they have enormous challenges, but also enormous human capital. I was very blessed to have that breadth of experience. One thing [former SRC chairman] Pedro Ramos taught me, as he got yelled at on a daily basis, was that you have to be willing to really listen to people. When you take a step back and listen, there’s usually an issue that you can find common ground on and help them resolve. That’s helped me a lot throughout my entire career: Always take the angle of being a listener and a problem-solver, even when someone’s in your face.
How did College Together and Hospitality Together come to be?
After I graduated from Haverford, I launched Mentor for Philly, which became College Together, in the summer of 2013. That started as a mentoring program with Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and UPenn. One of the moments that made me very proud was when a high school principal said, “I’ve seen a lot of tutoring programs come through, but I like this structure because none of your mentors think they’re any better than any of my kids.” That one moment drives me. How do you approach this work from a very human perspective— to say that this is about belonging and relationships and worth and value and making sure that students feel that way? That’s why our Study Lounge at Community College of Philadelphia has a goal wall and a wall of photos of our students, so that every single student can see themselves as part of the space. That same mindset led us to expand our programming and pilot Hospitality Together last year. For me, it’s really about taking the values I learned at Haverford, in terms of a sense of community and belonging, that everybody wants to be seen and heard inside and outside of the classroom, and that students should be given a level of autonomy to explore what they want and to challenge conventional wisdom.
What about traditional college isn’t working for some students?
Higher ed has become this narrative—you have to go to college—but not everyone is served by traditional structures in the same way. The student debt crisis isn’t just about students who take out $100,000 of debt to go to med school but can usually make it up with high salaries. It’s about students with $5,000 or $10,000 of debt who’ve dropped out. If you drop out of school and can’t afford to go back and you’re at a job where you have no pathway, that becomes a burden not just for that student and their family, but for that community. At Hospitality Together, instead of taking on debt, our students earn income—our partners are paying them to work in some of the city’s top restaurants and learn at the same time, which is pretty cool compared to the alternative. As educators, our loyalty should not be to a particular type of system or structure. It should be to students and to youth.
Hospitality Together received its first round of seed funding this summer, thanks to a social innovation grant from the Barra Foundation. What’s next?
Of course, we’re not done fundraising, and we welcome contributions. I’m really proud of everyone on the team, and especially Judy Ni for being an incredible cofounder and dedicating her time, energy, and passion not just for hospitality work, but for social justice and education. People sometimes think that having a great idea means they’re good to go. The real hard part, the real magic, happens when you get into the work of putting that idea into action. We’re building something new that’s also pretty complicated—bringing together the worlds of hospitality and higher education, building a structure that has traditionally not existed before. We’re building infrastructure and building a culture for our team, but we’re testing out a lot of ideas and assumptions, and we have to be willing to be wrong and edit. That’s the stage we’re in right now. There are days when I wake up and I think, ‘This idea is great, it’s going to be fantastic.’ There are others when I think, ‘This is never going to work.’ It’s the balance of both of those days that go into creating a program that’s very exciting and very risky, but also very high potential.