It is a privilege to spend an hour talking with Jennifer and Benjamin Ezeokoli, 2011 graduates of Middle College High School and Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA. Along with a High School Diploma and multiple Associates’ Degrees, they’ve each been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships including the Gates Millennium Scholarship, that completely supports students through a PhD degree. Earlier this year, the Contra Costa Times wrote, “She gives new meaning to the phrase ‘beating the odds’. The 17-year-old Oakland girl has overcome neighborhood violence and drugs, the foreclosure of her Richmond home, and her mother’s car accident. Jennifer seems to welcome a challenge, and a little competition.” “When you’re twins, people compare you,” said Jennifer, “but I’ve learned it’s healthy competition. I’m not competing against him; I just want to be the best that I can be.”
To be the best, Jennifer has had to work, at times doing door-to-door sales in scary neighborhoods in order to help support the family. “It was a lot to have on my shoulders, but as I grew older, I understood why that was placed on me. I understood that if I wasn’t there, who was going to help my parents do it.”
When the twins were in their teens, the family moved into a house in Richmond and they enrolled in the local middle school. It was there that the Contra Costa MCHS Leadership students came to the campus to talk to the eighth graders.
“I liked the fact that it was much smaller, that you got more help and support,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss that.”
After two years at MCHS, the family lost their Richmond home to foreclosure and moved back to Oakland, but Benjamin and Jennifer were determined to stay at MCHS. That meant that on a typical day, they were up and out of the house at 6:30, taking BART and bus to San Pablo. The commute was well worth it. The main thing she cherishes about her high school experience was the intellectual freedom afforded on a college campus. Benjamin loved the sheer variety of courses and the opportunity to develop independence. They agree that the smallness of the school allows for closer relationships and guidance at every step. Both credit college tutoring and early college seminars with helping their success. They are now paid tutors for other students in the sciences.
Jennifer is interested in the mysteries involving the brain, both the biology and the chemistry. “I like the thought that I can heal people physically,” she explains. “I just want to go into pediatric cardiology in order to give children the opportunity to live their lives.” Benjamin, who has taken many courses in biotechnology with extra mathematics and other sciences, is planning to become a doctor as well.
Benjamin credits one of his chemistry professors who found out what credits he had and helped him explore his potentials and apply his skills. Jennifer appreciates the support she got from teachers, administrators, and professors who always challenged and helped her do her best. Both value their high school and college with allowing them to develop a collegial relationship with college professors.
Before selecting Stanford for their undergraduate studies, they separately visited many prestigious colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. They liked other schools, but both felt that many of the eastern schools had a more formal atmosphere than they would like. Although they each have about 100 college credits, they will enter Stanford as freshmen. Jennifer explained, “I will have the knowledge of all those units I’ve earned, so I can enroll in more advanced courses right away. After all, if I’m going to Stanford why would I want to go for only two years?”
To this brother and sister duo, Middle College at Contra Costa College is their “normal”, a place where you don’t have to just know, you can explore. It’s a place where every student shines bright.