Samantha Sinclair’s Pathway to Purpose helps students from diverse backgrounds acclimate to the college application process.
By Katharine Gammon
When Samantha Sinclair was a high school senior, she wanted to visit colleges in her home state of New York. But she had no clear path to do so, since there were no college preparation resources at her school or her home. When she was interested in visiting the State University of New York at Fredonia, she bought a Greyhound bus ticket and took an eight-hour ride alone to get there. As challenging as it was to visit a college on her own this way, the in-person visits made it possible for her to envision herself there as a student.
Now Sinclair works to ensure high schoolers from diverse backgrounds have the skills and resources to prepare for college admissions — minus the long, lonely solo bus rides. “I was able to do it, but many students can’t do it or won’t do it. I wanted to bring the resources right to their schools,” she explains.
In 2016, Sinclair created Pathway to Purpose, an organization that has partnered with 48 middle schools and high schools to provide early college prep services — college trips, workshops, financial aid fairs and college awareness days — to give students and parents the critical information needed to make informed decisions.
Last year, Sinclair, now a doctoral candidate in higher education at Seton Hall, was selected by
American Express for its 100-for-100 Founders of Change program aimed at recognizing and assisting Black women entrepreneurs.
Sinclair’s interest in this career was sparked when she attended the University at Albany (SUNY), where she was a campus tour guide for the Educational Opportunity Program. She would welcome hundreds of students from New York City to Albany, and through dozens of tours, a few things stuck out: “All the students had the same questions about affordability, the application process, and sometimes did not feel confident enough to complete the application process.”
That memory stuck with her as she completed a master’s degree in higher education at Columbia University in 2010. She still had a great interest in working with underserved students, and she started to work in college prep positions.
Sinclair’s goal is to help students make intentional college decisions. Many students are making their way to college despite their socioeconomic backgrounds, she says — the challenge for colleges is to retain them until graduation. “Understanding what factors to consider when choosing a college is key. It’s about making sure students are set up with the mindset, the terminologies and family support to get them through college.”
Pathway to Purpose tackles these challenges in several ways. It has partnered with schools in 23 districts across New York City, helped more than 10,000 students and started introducing college preparation as early as seventh grade. It hosts college tours for students — many of whom have never left their hometown, or even their neighborhood, Sinclair says. “For many students, even going to upstate New York, they say: ‘This is so different. Where are the trains?’”
Pathway to Purpose is ultimately about education innovation, Sinclair says. The organization recently created college study flash cards with five categories that allow students to home in on topics around college readiness. The cards explain concepts like FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and also include affirmations that reinforce to students that they can and will succeed.
Katie Smith, an assistant professor of higher education, says Sinclair “stood out as a voice in the interest of equity” during a class she taught in 2019. “Samantha really cares about students coming from underrepresented backgrounds and making sure they have access to education.” And while many Seton Hall graduate students work full time, relatively few have a role like Sinclair’s as the head of an organization. This provides a vital perspective in the classroom, Smith says, because she’s in the trenches, doing this work every day. “Higher education is a field that has an opportunity to make a difference in a more equitable society.”
For Sinclair, her career is a way to open doors for others — doors that she had to push for herself. “At Pathway to Purpose, we want to make college preparation easy and digestible, so that people are not terrified or paralyzed by the process.”
Katharine Gammon is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica.