I had the opportunity to sit with Ashley Hill, Founder & Executive Director of The PREP Academy who was named one of Future of Good’s Founders to Watch in 2022 and was a finalist for the 2022 Halifax Chamber of Commerce Business Awards Not-for-profit Business of the Year.
“I’ve experienced so many ‘no’s.” Tired of watching history repeat itself, Founder & Executive Director of The PREP Academy, Ashley Hill wanted to change the trajectory of opportunities for African Nova Scotian youth. Ashley is a first-generation student and graduate, which means she was the first of her family to attend and graduate university. But getting there was not an easy journey in a province where only 50 years ago, just 3% of African Nova Scotian students were accepted into post-secondary institutes. “Three percent,” repeats Ashley, “That’s one generation away. This is a community where graduating high school is a great accomplishment.”
Slipping Through The Cracks
University or college wasn’t top of mind for Ashley or her friends. Post-secondary brochures and pamphlets lacked representation, the smiling students reflecting campus life didn’t look like her. “I’m the only sibling in my family who’s gotten suspended from school. That joke still lingers to this day,” Ashley said, feeling like that moment in Grade 11 stereotyped and defined her the rest of her senior years. “In hindsight, I feel like I slipped through the cracks,” recalls Ashley about her high school experience. Though she was an Honours student, involved in extracurriculars, and well-liked by teachers – Ashley didn’t think post-secondary education was a possibility, “I didn’t discuss options and criteria with anyone until it was almost too late.”
Only knowing of the universities in her area, Ashley applied late, but she missed the deadline for the larger scholarships. “I didn’t know how to write about myself. I didn’t know how to send an email to an admissions counsellor.” Ashley was accepted to both Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s University, opting for DAL solely because of a $500 entrance scholarship difference.
As a student of Dartmouth’s Auburn Drive High School, Ashley wasn’t prepared for the adjustment to university – she often was the only Black student in a large auditorium classroom. She sat in the back of the class, felt lost in a sea of students who didn’t look like her, and questioned her place in school. “I didn’t know how to study or take notes. I watched people type away on their laptops while I only had a notebook and pen. It was such a culture shock, I felt so alone.”
Ashley worked two jobs in her first year of university, catching a bus from Cole Harbour at 6:30AM. She would spend the day in classes, bus to work, and do it all again the next morning. As the eldest sibling and a first-generation student, she felt the immense pressure to succeed – to make something of herself. At the time, her grandmother was terminally ill, later passing away in January. “She was my best friend,” Ashley shared, “When you’re so stressed, pulling all-nighters, and working two jobs – what more could you do? I’d never even failed a test before let alone a whole course.”
After her first semester, Ashley received a letter from the University notifying her that she was on academic probation. She was later dismissed after her first year. Earlier, Ashley had met with Senator Wanda Bernard who was a professor at DAL’s School of Social Work at the time, “She wanted to mentor me and connect me with people but when I flunked out my first year, I was so embarrassed. And I ghosted her. Yes, you can write that!” Ashley chuckled.
Quenta Adams, an African Nova Scotian Academic Advisor, was instrumental in Ashley’s return to university and her academic success. She helped her write her re-entrance letter and guided her to courses and a degree based on interests and aspirations. With smaller class sizes, experiential learning, and courses better selected for her passion, Ashley finally began enjoying the post-secondary experience. “It was tough. I still graduated on academic probation, but I was exposed to things outside my bubble. I got to see the possibilities.”
What Would Support Look Like?
Though there were great teachers and staff in junior high and high school, Ashley wondered whose job it was to guide Black students through the often-overwhelming post-secondary process? What about the students who don’t even make it through the door? Who is ensuring African Nova Scotian students not only have access to the information, but can sift through it all and sense-make? Looking back on her journey, she imagined what could have been if there was a support system in place. How different could the transition from high school to university have been?
Throughout her early career where her role focused on supporting and mentoring Black youth in Nova Scotia, Ashley carried this thought. She considered Academic Advisor roles at universities and positions within schools like Guidance Counsellors, but felt defeated when she didn’t have the GPA to pursue the post-graduate degrees often required for these roles.
After more ‘no’s’, Ashley was struggling to find her place to make an impact in her community when she said, “F-ck it, I’m just going to create it.” The planning began in a simple notebook, and materialized into The PREP Academy which was officially registered as a non-profit organization in 2021.
I’m not an expert, I don’t have a master’s degree in education. But what I do have is lived experiences, and the ability to create the infrastructure, to put the pieces together to ensure that history isn’t repeating itself. How you’re able to move is what’s important.
Ashley Hill (she/her)
Founder and Executive Director, PREP Academy
Bridging the Gap
Ashley describes The PREP Academy as a unique bridge between community, home, high school, and post-secondary institutes, “It’s hard to send students off into a space that isn’t safe, that isn’t designed for them. I want to make sure students have as many opportunities as possible to feel prepared for their next big life change.” Culturally informed and community-based, PREP supports African Nova Scotian high schoolers to explore their full potential and navigate career paths. The impact organization helps students prepare, access, and succeed through college and university by providing information, resources, and exposure to opportunities.
“Students need to fall in love with learning. University or college isn’t for everyone – and that’s okay, but how do we use learning as a tool to develop ourselves?”
Ashley and her team work with African Nova Scotian youth, identifying goals, interests, and passions early on to match them with post-secondary pathways, mentors in the field, and hands-on experience. PREP is many things for the students – a compass, a safe place, and a point of non-judgmental support – especially in a system where Black students are often stereotyped, overlooked, and left behind. PREP often advocates on behalf of their students, “Sometimes it’s being in a meeting with them, or just being there for the ‘hey, I’m not doing well’ texts.” Ashley has been in conversation with post-secondary institutes about what access and success for African Nova Scotian students looks like, as well as what supports are available on campus.
“It’s all about the students’ stories. Hearing the “thank you” and the “this is what I needed, I have a plan now.” It’s those small wins that mean so much to me”, says Ashley.
What’s Next for PREP Academy?
Last year, The PREP Academy celebrated their students through many milestones and moments of growth. In 2022, they supported 49 students with PREP programs and culturally relevant supports and 90% of those students continued to post-secondary institutes. PREP also secured $26,000 in scholarships for their students, supported African Nova Scotian students with a micro-internship program, and connected 15 students with career mentors.
“The Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) is providing scholarships and financial awards to students who participate in PREP programming!” Ashley spoke to the positive reception they’re getting, “People are opening their arms to receive us.”
In the future, Ashley is anticipating more partnerships with colleges and universities as the PREP team have begun conversations and planning around equitable approaches – like waiving admission fees and creating designated spots for African Nova Scotian students.
In recognizing a need in her community and tailoring solutions from her own experience, Ashley is building opportunities for African Nova Scotian youth. Through helping students realize the possibilities and shape their own futures, The PREP Academy is breaking generational barriers for African Nova Scotian youth in the province.
“I’m not an expert, I don’t have a master’s degree in education. But what I do have is lived experiences, and the ability to create the infrastructure, to put the pieces together to ensure that history isn’t repeating itself. How you’re able to move is what’s important.”
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PREP ACADEMY?
Keep up with PREP Academy’s activities by following their pages at the links below:
Lydia Phillip (she/ her)
Lydia oversees IONS’ external communications, branding, social media, and website development. She creates content and contributes to IONS’ work through championing the sector through her power in writing and storytelling.