By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN — When he was a first-generation college student away from Camden for the first time studying at Morehouse, Khary Golden admitted his struggles of being isolated and piecing together his experiences to make it through.

It is why Golden is so passionate about returning to his hometown and helping other students like him through Camden U. The hard lessons he learned despite preparing himself the best he could while in high school he hopes to boost others.

Earlier this year, Golden told Front Runner New Jersey about why he wants the students he encounters to benefit from his experience.

Camden U is an innovative nonprofit that partners with Southern New Hampshire University to provide Camden city residents the opportunity to enroll in the nation’s first competency-based college degree program.

Education Meets Innovation

Camden U is comprised of a team of highly skilled degree navigators, who provide Camden U students with comprehensive academic and career coaching support, from application to graduation and beyond.

“Camden U is designed in a way that removes all the barriers that working adults encounter on the road to college and career success,” Golden told Front Runner New Jersey. “In addition to degree pathways, Camden U has also partnered with the Camden Education Fund to create Teacher Pathways, which is a unique program designed to target Camden city school district paraprofessionals for an opportunity to earn an NJ teacher certification.

“This program seeks to build capacity in Camden city classrooms by empowering individuals who are already best equipped to serve as instructional leaders in Camden classrooms,”

added Golden, who attended Morehouse and Rutgers University Camden while earning his bachelor’s in political science with a minor in African-American Studies.

He also has his master’s in Public Administration & Education Leadership from Rutgers University-Camden.

Clearing Hurdles

Golden said debilitating student loans, a hot topic among educators and students today, and making adjustments academically and socially are often huge challenges for first-generation students.

“Far too often, college is a losing investment for students from places like Camden, who struggle to simply break even after maneuvering through a truly broken higher education system,” Golden said. “This is why the work that Camden U will do in the city of Camden is so vitally important.”

Golden said what makes Camden U unique is that it is designed to cater to the lifestyle of a working adult.

“There are no classes to attend, online or in person, which takes the scheduling and time constraint out of the equation,” Golden said. “There are no tests or quizzes, no midterms or final exams. There is no testing of any kind in this program because it is entirely ‘project based,’ allowing students the opportunity to earn credits by showing what they know.

“Lastly, there are no expensive textbooks or materials to buy. The program is ‘priced at Pell,’ which means students won’t pay any money out of pocket if they are eligible for a Pell grant.”

Believing in Camden

While Golden could have founded his innovative nonprofit anywhere, he said he believes in the “groundswell of positive momentum in the city of Camden” and wanted to be part of making a difference.

“I want to position Camden U as a tool for uplifting Camden city residents, to widen the pool of residents who have access to a high-quality high education experience,” Golden said.

“I want to position Camden U as a conduit for connecting Camden residents to opportunities for career advancement so that they can benefit from the tremendous growth and development taking place in the city. Most importantly, I want Camden U to be of and for the residents of the city of Camden.”

The Rest of the Story

Golden touched on a wide range of subjects in his interview with Front Runner New Jersey, which are inspiring, motivating and encouraging. Here are the answers to our other questions:

FRNJ: Let’s start with some basics like your age and family. Just whatever you’d like to share. I see you were born and raised in Camden. How did that shape you?

Khary Golden: The city of Camden has been the defining dimension of my life and my journey through service leadership. As a child growing up, living and learning in the Camden city school district, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to help build capacity in the same classrooms I sat in. Taking on this role as Executive Director of Camden U has brought me full circle, right back to the place that helped shape the context and contours of my life. I have dedicated my life to increasing opportunities and improving education outcomes for Camden city children and families, and I am incredibly humbled to be in a strategic position to do this work.

I grew up in the Whitman Park neighborhood and attended Dudley before being selected as a participant in the first cohort of the CHIPS program. As a student at Forest Hill Elementary, I was supported academically, challenged intellectually, and supported emotionally. My classmates and I were uplifted and protected in a way that allowed us to shape our own unique perspective of the world around us. We were encouraged to engage in dialogue about both historical themes and current events that were relevant to our experience growing up in the city of Camden. We were exposed to a wide array of culturally relevant themes through music and fine arts long before culturally relevant education was en vogue. The CHIPS program was one of those small pockets of brilliance that makes Camden such an incredibly special place. I experienced firsthand the power that a small group of like-minded individuals can have when committed to one singular purpose. 

FRNJ: You went to Morehouse for undergrad. How did that impact you as far as wanting to give back?

Khary Golden: I made the decision to attend Morehouse because I was searching for something to affirm what it is that I would later find out was already inside of me. I once had an AP teacher in high school basically tell me I wasn’t “Ivy league” material. He encouraged me to lower my expectations for college success, which made me want to find a college campus where I would feel supported and protected intellectually and emotionally, much like my experience in the CHIPS program. I found what I was looking for at Morehouse, for the most part, and I thrived. However, the biggest challenge I encountered wasn’t adjusting academically or socially; it was surviving financially. Just the cost of travel alone was enough to make me reconsider my choice, and as I sat in an empty freshman dorm during Thanksgiving break of my first year, I knew I was on borrowed time. 

Struggling to pass classes without expensive textbooks and dealing with food insecurity were just a small slice of my experience at Morehouse. Even at the time, I understood that my experience was not necessarily unique. Many first generation black and brown students make the calculated risk to “go away” to college for any number of reasons. Far too often, for students from communities like Camden, Trenton, and Newark, going away to college is akin to an escape route. College can represent a chance to finally experience life free of the burdens of working a part time job to support their family, or acting as an after-school caretaker for younger siblings. Debilitating student loan debt can be dismissed as a necessary evil for an aspiring college student, but that calculated risk of investing in higher education is only prudent if you walk away with a skill set that offsets the monumental cost of obtaining that degree.

FRNJ: How did the idea for Camden U come about and the partnership with Southern New Hampshire?

Khary Golden: As the Founding Executive Director of Camden U, I have had the incredibly humbling experience of leading the charge to build the foundation of what I envision one day becoming a cornerstone of higher education in the city of Camden. With the financial and logistical support of the Trio New College Network, Camden U has joined a network of hybrid colleges, including Degree Forward in Detroit and Gateway U in Newark. Partnering with Southern New Hampshire University allows Camden U to deliver a fast, flexible, affordable college experience designed specifically for working adults. Camden U provides both Associates and Bachelors degree pathways, with concentrations in Business, Communications, and Healthcare Management. 

Camden U also has scholarships and affordable payment plan options available. Camden U is comprised of a team of “Degree Navigators”, who provide wraparound coaching support from the day you enroll, until the day you graduate. 

FRNJ: Tell me about working your way through LEAP to how your advancement shaped your view of education?

Khary Golden: During my 12-plus years working at LEAP Academy, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as the primary academic advisor and pre-college counselor for an entire generation of graduating seniors. I was able to help build dual-enrollment partnerships with Rutgers University and Rowan University, providing all LEAP graduating seniors with a full year of college level coursework. I got the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest young minds in the city of Camden, and I helped hundreds of students make a successful transition from high school into higher education. 

During my time at LEAP, I learned some tremendously valuable lessons. I learned the importance of the phrase, “keep that same energy”, as I celebrated the accomplishments of students getting accepted to Camden County College the same way I would celebrate a student being accepted into Columbia or Cornell. I learned that success in higher education comes in all shapes and sizes, and that we have to be mindful and intentional in allowing young people to learn, achieve, and even fail in a safe environment. Most importantly, I learned that success in the city of Camden does not necessarily have to be an outlier or an anomaly. In that space, I found one of those uniquely Camden pockets of brilliance, and I found a spark that ignited my passion for people and service leadership. 

It was at LEAP Academy that I found my purpose as an educator, but I also now realize that I have the opportunity to exponentially increase the impact of my efforts thru my position as Executive Director of Camden U. Instead of just working to place students into college, I am now focusing me efforts on coaching students thru college, one credit at a time. I began my journey at LEAP Academy as an unpaid intern, and I never imagined that over a decade later I would have the opportunity to continue the work I started there, but on a bigger level. For that, I am eternally grateful to people like CEF Executive Director Naeha Dean, who has been an absolutely amazing community partner, thought partner, and friend. Also, individuals like John Gabrieli, Wes Peacock, and Marcone Correia, who have empowered me with the tools to empower Camden residents to pursue their college aspirations.

FRNJ: How does it feel to be a role model for those around you?

Khary Golden: Role models are essential to the fabric of a community, however, I never quite envisioned myself in that fashion. I’ve always thought of myself and the role I have played in the lives of students as simply being a voice. And I draw on my own life experiences to help motivate and encourage them to be the best possible version of themselves. The reason why I have always been hesitant to embrace the term role model is because I seek to encourage students to be better than me, and not just simply follow in my footsteps. I want the students I work with to blaze their own trail and use their unique God given ability to find their own passion and purpose in life. 

Quite often, the allure of being in a position of influence makes leaders want to shape the world in their own image and likeness, including the lives of the people they help. I have never wanted the person I am to be the focus of the work. Even though I can relate to the students I have worked with as a result of having similar experiences growing up in the city of Camden, I always encourage them to focus on envisioning their own unique version of future success. I encourage students to always invest in education, and to never allow the obstacles encountered on the road to success to define the journey. In my new role as Executive Director of Camden U, I now have the opportunity to be that same voice for working adults. 

FRNJ: Who inspires you today?

Khary Golden: I find inspiration in young people. I am consistently and continually amazed by their capacity for candor and compassion. The young people of today are infinitely more open-minded, more resourceful, more understanding, more accepting, and more civically engaged than my generation or any previous generation. Young people give me hope that there truly is a reason to continue fighting the good fight.

I am also inspired by individuals who are “doing the work”. The individuals on the frontlines, working every single day to improve conditions for Camden residents. I am inspired by homegrown educators like Iran Mercado, who has dedicated his life to uplifting students in the same community he was raised in. I am inspired by the individuals who paved the way for me, like Carmen Ubarry, my muse, who served as my first supervisor at LEAP, and who has continued to dedicate her life to the children and families of the city of Camden. I am inspired by individuals like Sean Brown, who work strategically behind the scenes to connect individuals to life changing opportunities. I am inspired by individuals like Superintendent Katrina McCombs and Mayor Vic Carstarphen, who proudly uphold the mantle of leadership for the city of Camden, working to steer this community toward a brighter future. But most importantly, I am inspired by the people of the city of Camden. whose unique blend of pride, resilience, and self-determination makes this city such a special place.  

FRNJ: Anything else you would like to add?

Khary Golden: I would be remiss if I did not mention the tremendous support I have received from my wife, Anjulie Williams, who is also a dedicated educator. As the Assistant Director of Teacher Development at the Mastery Charter, she has found her life’s purpose in working to increase capacity in the same classrooms she once learned in as a Philadelphia public school student. The symmetry of our lives together, and shared journey through friendship and marriage and now parenthood has been the guiding force in my life since we met as teenagers. Any good that I am able to accomplish in life is because of how much she has helped me grow into a man, husband, and father. Together we are the proud parents of two beautiful boys, Christopher King and Cree Khary.

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