A Q&A with Aileen Hefferren '88 H'12
Four years after graduating from Kenyon, Aileen C. Hefferren ’88 H’12 was reading The New York Times and spotted an ad for an open position with Prep for Prep, as director of operations. She was unemployed, having left a career in foreign policy the year before, but she wasn’t sure it was the right fit for her. Prep for Prep, a leadership development program that prepares New York City’s most promising students of color and for placement at independent schools in the city and boarding schools throughout the Northeast — and offers them support and opportunities to ensure their academic and personal growth — intrigued her, and she applied.
Ten years later, in 2002, she was appointed chief executive at Prep for Prep, where she remains today. The Bulletin spoke with Hefferren, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees and chairs its Diversity Committee, about life after Kenyon, race relations in America and the Commencement address she delivered at Kenyon in 2012.
Q: What attracted you to Kenyon as a student?
A: I actually applied to Kenyon in May of my senior year of high school. I was attracted because they were willing to take an application from me [at that late date. Laughs.] I was waitlisted up and down the East Coast and I very much wanted to go to school in the fall. My guidance counselor suggested Kenyon. I had never considered anything as small as Kenyon. My graduating class had close to 1,000 students, so Kenyon was a real change. But I was admitted and decided to go. And I loved the place.
Q: Was it during your time at Kenyon that you developed a passion for leadership development, education and diversity?
A: My concern about access goes back to my own upbringing. When I learned about Prep for Prep, in 1992, what was important to me was that this was an organization that structured opportunities for children who were, 1) extraordinarily bright and, 2) willing to work hard. I really felt that your ZIP code shouldn’t determine where you go to college and what kind of opportunities you have.
Q: You delivered the 2012 Commencement address and received an honorary degree. What do you remember most from that experience?
A: It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. [Laughs.] I took a long time to arrive at the topic and then was somewhat nervous about whether people were going to be receptive to that topic: I talked about race in America and my two decades of experience with Prep for Prep, and also about my own family, as my husband of 20 years is African American. I was delighted that the address was well-received. And I was really glad when it was over!
Q: The topic of race in America is at the top of many people’s minds right now. How do you help the kids you work with process recent events and tragedies in the news?
A: I find it tremendously sad, where we are. It is interesting that four years ago when I delivered that address, some people were naively saying we had achieved a post-racial society. So, in the speech I presented how much more diverse America is than I was in college and, on the flip side, how shockingly little distance we’ve traveled.
I so wish that progress would have been made over the last four years, but that’s not the case. Segregation in education and housing, institutional racism, and income equality across races continue to haunt our society. With social media today, there’s real-time awareness of events and social injustices, which can both unite and fracture the country.
What can we do? For me, it’s to equip Prep for Prep students with the tools to deal with the here and now while developing leaders for the future. How heartening it is to see in the last month two Prep alums speak out about social injustices in the Opinion pages of The New York Times. Prep is developing highly qualified young people who, because of their backgrounds, are uniquely positioned to bridge the unacceptable divides that exist in our society.