April Baskin, the founder and executive director of College Simulation Experience, knows what it’s like to fail and to bear the brunt of other people’s unfair characterizations. She also knows that a failure or two is not the last chapter in the book, for her or for the students about whom she has become so passionate.
Baskin describes herself as a “right-brain learner: I needed things presented creatively to me.” A native of the West Side of Buffalo, Baskin went to public school through fourth grade, but found it stressful. In fifth grade, she went to Buffalo Performing Arts School, where she was successful in arts, dance, and theatre, but did poor academically. She says teachers labeled her as lazy.
Eventually she went to college, majoring in theatre, but again, her grades fell short and she lost her financial aid.
So Baskin dropped out of college and moved to New York City, where she taught art and developed curriculum for public schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn. She saw herself reflected in the faces and lives of her students.
That’s when she had an idea that would change her life, and the lives of many others.
“Why not combine academics with theatre and art?” she thought. So she approached some teachers to ask them what they were teaching in their classes. And that’s when she started teaching her students about the Civil War, or biology, for example, through poetry slams and other creative methods. She saw classroom engagement increase, and the principal offered her an administrative position.
But she couldn’t accept it because she did not have a college degree. “For me, it was a missed opportunity,” she said.
Baskin came back to Buffalo and joined AmeriCorps. Through a program sponsored by D’Youville College, she worked with refugee students. She got to know them and discovered how unrealistic were their perceptions of college and what it would take to succeed. “I knew that they, too, like me, would drop out,” she said.
By February 2015, she took all her experiences, failures, and passion, and rolled them into her new business: the College Simulation Experience, an intense, three-hour workshop that aims to help students stay in college.
Baskin and her two employees are essentially a traveling toolkit. With groups of 30 underprivileged students and the help of teachers from the schools they go into—in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Rochester—the College Simulation Experience sets up essential aspects of college life and puts the students through rigorous tests.
Here’s how it works: Students assume the role of first-time college students who have been awarded financial assistance. They become responsible for attending classes, buying books, doing laundry, buying their own food, taking on part-time jobs, managing financial aid, and much more. Roadblocks emerge during the simulation's four rounds. Participants are required to consistently readjust, prioritize, and exercise their financial and time management skills in order to make it to graduation day.
The client—usually a public school—provides teachers or administrators who play the roles of professors, school administrators, community service providers, and other people with whom they would interact as students on a college campus. Often, actual campus service providers from institutions of higher education take part in co-facilitating and answering questions during the post-simulation debriefing process.
Baskin admits it’s too early to measure success, because her first group of students won’t have graduated from college until 2019, but she is grateful that a company as large and well-known as 7-Eleven believes in what they are doing and is a sponsor. “That was a benchmark for us,” she said.
Baskin, a single mother and recently elected legislator in District 2 of the Erie County Legislature in the State of New York, holds a B.A. in theatre arts from SUNY Empire State College, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in higher education administration and student affairs at Buffalo State College.
She calls herself a social entrepreneur. “I’m blessed to be able to help people,” she said. It’s no wonder the Buffalo Urban League Young Professionals honored her with its Community Engagement Award in May 2017. Baskin was also honored with a 2017 Woman Touching the World Award by Unlimited Possibilities Overcoming Poverty Inc. She serves on The Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative's Buffalo Taskforce, is a member of the NAACP Buffalo Chapter, Leadership Niagara Class of '17, and a graduate of the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs (MWEE) program sponsored by the University of Buffalo.
Baskin has come far from her days as a college dropout, but she admits running her own business isn’t always straight out of a textbook. “I started my business in the middle of my living room,” she said. She acknowledged it’s not always easy to get potential investors to understand the challenges inner-city youth face in going to college. “[Students] are sold a dream, after all college may be free, and that life will be better. They’re not ready to take advantage of the opportunity they’ve been given,” she said.
“There’s more to being successful in college than having tuition covered,” she continued. “Despite college prep programs preparing students for the college admissions process and providing financial support for tuition, we still see drastically low graduation rates nationwide.”
Baskin hopes her program will reach young people and help them prepare for their own future, and she’s excited about developing the College Simulation Experience technology so that “we can reach all young adults,” she said. Currently, she is approaching investors and hopes to launch the new online tool in fall 2019.