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What One St. Louis Youth Learned from Beating the Odds

This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2016 Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, supported by America’s Promise Alliance and the Citi Foundation, are placing low-income young adults on a path toward career success.

Ametra Harris, 24, has a lot to be proud of.

In a country where only 6 percent of the science, math, and technology workforce is African American—and even fewer are African American women—Harris has a bachelor’s in civil engineering and a job with a women-owned engineering firm in St. Louis.

But her biggest accomplishment?

“I’m most proud of breaking stereotypes that have been built around me. As a child of color raised by a single parent, I have always been aware of the statistics that could have defined me,” she said in an online interview with America’s Promise Alliance. “But I never let my situation determine my future. Instead, it fueled me to rise above – to make my mom, myself, and my community proud.”

Harris says she owes much of her success to the Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program, a Youth Opportunity Fund community partner that offers skill-building summer camps and support to students during the school year. It was there that Harris identified her passion for engineering, and support from Wyman’s college and career readiness coaches helped her achieve her goals.

America’s Promise asked Harris what else she learned from the program—and what others can learn from her.

Harris
Ametra Harris, 24, says she is most proud of breaking down the stereotypes built around her.

On Her Biggest Accomplishment: ‘I wanted to make myself proud.’

“Wyman and the Teen Leadership Program helped me learn about survival, the practicality of it – finding out the real definition of carrying my own load. Wyman helped me realize that the only person that could hold me back was myself. It taught me perseverance,” Harris said.

“Growing up, I was very aware of the statistics about children from ‘broken homes.’ I wanted to make myself proud, to make my mom proud. Wyman supported me through this entire transition and the decision of going to college. So much of the confidence I possess today I got from my summers at camp.”

On Staff Support: “I know to never be afraid.”

“Having Wyman staff meet at our school bi-weekly/monthly helped keep me on track, even when I wasn’t as motivated to do it for myself. I still feel very supported and connected to the Wyman staff, not just as counselors and mentors, but as colleagues and friends,” Harris said.

“I know to never be afraid or feel that I am alone because I know my Wyman family would be there for additional assistance, even in my adult life, when needed. With them I never felt judged, and I knew it was a safe space for me to learn and grow.”

Teen Leadership Program (TLP) teens during one of their many guided tours of college campuses across the state. In 2015, 91 percent of TLP teens enrolled in college or other post-secondary option.

On Giving Back to the City: ‘I was once in those same shoes.’

Harris was recently appointed to the City of St. Louis’s planning commission, which she sees as an opportunity to give back to her hometown.

“Our city is in a huge transition. I see a lot of growth, a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential in this city, and I want to be part of the change. I want others to learn about these civic engagement opportunities and find ways to put their own skill set to use,” Harris said.

“St. Louis is who I am, and I want to build my community up and give opportunities to others like I had. I love meeting people who are eager to get involved but just don’t know how. I was once in those same shoes so I’m able to offer insight on getting your foot in the door.

“Having been a city resident all my life,” she added, “I have seen neighborhoods thrive, while others deteriorate. It’s my goal to see all St. Louis communities flourish together, even though they may be different in style and culture.”

Wyman’s ropes/climbing courses
A TLP teen participating in one of Wyman’s ropes/climbing courses encourage TLP teens to step out of their comfort zones, which helps build confidence, leadership, and team building skills.

On the Value of Youth-Centered Programs: ‘Not sure what I would’ve done without it.’

Here’s why Harris believes programs like Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program matter: “In our city, children don’t always have the abilities and the resources to articulate what they need to grow and be successful, but advocates like Wyman make that possible. Being surrounded by such a positive network at one of the most influential times in your life can really make a positive difference.”

She continued, “St. Louis is fortunate to have so many programs offered by Wyman, and I know that Wyman has had such a great impact on me. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without it.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.

For more stories about Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, visit our Medium page.