The Prep Academy was started to help African Nova Scotians transition smoothly from grade school to university, career
Ashley Hill faced many barriers as an African Nova Scotian pursuing higher education. Her response was to try to ensure others don’t have the same experience.
Hill is the founder and executive director of The Prep Academy, a non-profit organization catering to African Nova Scotian secondary students. It tries to bridge the gap between high school and post-secondary education. The academy started in April 2021 and took its first cohort of students in September 2021.
“When I was studying Sociology at Dalhousie, that was when I first began to realize the prevalence of social structures and systemic racism, and the importance of your surroundings to your development. It was also around this time that I noticed I was one of the only Black faces in my classes,” Hill says.
Being the first person in her family to graduate from university, she had few references to call on during that challenging first year at Dalhousie.
“In many ways, I felt unprepared for university and the stresses of university life. At the end of my first year, I was close to dropping out. My final GPA wasn’t high enough to pursue further higher education.”
She originally wanted to work with universities in recruiting or engaging African Nova Scotian students, but decided it would be a better strategy for her to intervene in earlier stages.
“I looked at the systems in place and not much had changed since I graduated high school in 2009. I knew getting a university degree was a great experience for me, despite the challenges, and I wanted to ensure African Nova Scotian youth knew they had options. That this could potentially be a great experience for them too.”
Hill says her career path has involved several different roles, but at the core of her philosophy is helping people pursue their goals. This passion for helping people and improving lives was inspired by her grandmother, Beretta.
Her work as a youth program coordinator at the Black Business Initiative, as well as as manager of people and culture at the North End Community Health Care centre, made her further realize her goals of investing in the economic development of the African Nova Scotian community.
“It was definitely challenging at first because starting a non-profit is different from starting a business,” Hill says. “I’ve found in my research there are many supports for new businesses, but not as many for non-profits. There were so many things I learned on the job, from how to assemble a board of directors to creating a fund development pipeline. Again, representation was an issue here too, because I didn’t have many African Nova Scotians who I could lean on for advice. But, in the past year, I have substantially increased my network. Heather MacDonald, the ex-director of the MacPhee Centre in Dartmouth, was a huge help to me and someone I could talk to throughout the process. She is supportive and an informal mentor to me.”
Hill says the lack of direct access to African Nova Scotian students was one of the main challenges she faced while starting her organization.
“One of the best ways to reach these students is through schools that have Black student support workers. That’s how we got many of the students in our first cohort. However, not all schools have these support workers, especially in rural areas.”
Hill says working collaboratively with the Nova Scotia Department of Education and African Nova Scotian student workers, she was able to solidify her organization’s presence, mission, and vision.
“A large part of our marketing strategy is marketing where young high schoolers are, such as Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc. We also market to their parents and let them know their kids have options.”
Hill says her organization wants to guide students through the whole process of applying to university and equip them with resources for managing their time, mental wellbeing, and finances once they get there.
“I would say some of the challenges or roadblocks we’ve faced are actually the students’ challenges. For example, one of our students wanted to pursue a nursing program after attending a few of our sessions. However, she didn’t have advanced math as a subject, which is required to apply. In the future, as we expand more as an organization, I want to be able to work with students all the way from Grade 9 to university and keep them engaged throughout the process. In this way, we create an alumni pipeline that will inspire the following generation.
“Covid has been interrupting some of our programming, but we’ve adjusted as everyone has to virtual operations as needed and I’m confident we will be able to have workshops and in-person sessions with the students soon. I really want to engage more students from rural Nova Scotia as well, as they especially don’t always see themselves represented in higher education,” Hill says. Speaking about her goals, she says, “My long-term goal is to have a youth centre where The Prep Academy can deliver all our programming. I want African Nova Scotian youth to feel they can learn and grow in a safe environment and have access to a wealth of opportunities in a safe environment. Yes, we may have several youth centres already, but none of them specialize in culturally-informed programs for African Nova Scotians, which is what we’re all about. On our website, you can see images of young people from our community that are authentically themselves, not just tokens.”
Hill says mentorship and connecting students with internships is something The Prep Academy facilitates, so students can get some valuable work experience and a feel of where their talents lie.
She also sheds light on the importance of having a strong peer community, which she gained through the ACCE (Arts, Culture, Community, and Economics) Halifax group, a group she helped found, which consists of African Nova Scotian leaders in various fields coming together to empower Black people to realize their inherent value.
“Every time I am with the group, I feel a strong sense of community to be in the presence of so many Black leaders. I’m always inspired to continue working to show our youth their endless potential.”
Watch Ashley’s Global interview below: