She’s Giving Every College Student a Life Coach
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she might have an answer for a major college completion gap.
By Molly Fosco
When Alex Bernadotte was in seventh grade, her mom came home one day from her job as a hospital blood technician and in her thick Haitian accent told her daughter, “I know where you’re going to college. Dart-Mouth.” She overheard Dr. Carpino say that’s where he was sending his daughter for college. If that’s where doctors send their kids, that’s where Bernadotte would go too.
Five years later, she fulfilled the prophecy. But Bernadotte’s first week at Dartmouth sent her reeling. Despite having stellar grades and near-perfect test scores, Bernadotte was wildly unprepared. She had even bought the wrong size sheets for her bed. “It was like I had been dropped in a foreign country and left to navigate myself.”
The students don’t need to be fixed, they just need some help.
Now Bernadotte, 48, punctures that feeling each day with Beyond 12, a tech nonprofit in Oakland, California, that provides virtual coaching to graduating high school seniors and college students — with a focus on first-generation college students and immigrants. Students from high-income families are eight times more likely than students from low-income families to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 — that’s 77 to 9 percent, according to the Pell Institute. Beyond 12 strives to close the gap by assigning coaches to guide students through troubles big and small. Beyond 12 now works with 120 high schools nationwide and has tracked the progress of more than 100,000 undergrads. By 2025, Bernadotte is aiming for 1 million students a year.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Bernadotte was cared for by her grandmother, whom she calls “Mommy Claire,” while her parents emigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. At age 7, Bernadotte was reunited with her parents in inner-city Boston, where her mom’s job at the hospital and her dad’s work at a window pane factory kept the family afloat, and they hammered home the importance of education. “Knowledge is the great equalizer” was household law, Bernadotte says.
After a stellar career at her all-girls Catholic high school, Bernadotte got into Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University and Boston College — but Dartmouth had always been the dream. Bernadotte arrived on move-in day in small-town New Hampshire with a 10-car caravan full of her extended family. “Hanover didn’t know what hit it,” she says, laughing.
But soon, Bernadotte was in a similar state of shock. “On the academic side, I had learned formulas from memorizing but didn’t know how to apply that knowledge,” she says. “I didn’t know how to form study groups, and I wasn’t prepared socially.” Bernadotte started failing classes like genetics and calculus and was academically suspended at the beginning of her sophomore year. Thanks to support from her parents and her former pediatrician, who let Bernadotte shadow her at work, she returned to Dartmouth the following year. Bernadotte doubled and tripled up on classes and became engaged on campus. And she still graduated on time.
She went on to devote her career to lifting up others like her by increasing education access, including a stint as executive director of The Princeton Review test prep company. After getting her master’s in policy, organization and leadership studies at Stanford, Bernadotte found herself at NewSchools Venture Fund, where she met with countless social entrepreneurs working to get underrepresented students into college. But they had no idea what happened to the students once they got there. Enter Beyond 12, now a nonprofit in residence at NewSchools Venture Fund.
In the beginning, “no one knew what a tech nonprofit was,” says Bernadotte. But a decade later, Beyond 12 works like this: Virtual coaches (full-time employees of the nonprofit), a majority of whom were the first to go to college in their family, are assigned to about 150 high school seniors who are going to college in the fall. They text, email, talk by phone and video, and even Snapchat and Instagram their mentees, to prepare them for freshman year. This includes everything from help with financial aid forms to buying the right textbooks to knowing which sheets will fit their dorm room bed. Beyond 12 is built on an executive coaching model — and the coaches are not emotional counselors. “The students don’t need to be fixed, they just need some help,” Bernadotte says. In all, 66 percent of them graduate within six years.
Via a mobile app called MyCoach, Beyond 12 downloads the academic and financial aid calendars of the schools that students are attending and creates a video-based “to do” list. The app sends push notifications (nudges) based on the school’s deadlines and activities. Students can also create their own activities and tasks based on their course syllabi. Beyond 12 and school administrators can track progress and target students who need more help.
Natalie Walrond, a founding board member of Beyond 12 and former colleague at NewSchools Venture Fund, first bonded with Bernadotte over their shared Caribbean heritage. Walrond, who is Trinidadian, was also struck by her dedication. “Alex was the first person to have the conversation about college success versus admissions only,” says Walrond. “She has a ferocity, a relentlessness and a focus in tackling this problem.”
Still, a growing number of experts are disputing the model that Bernadotte is pushing for 18-year-olds to succeed at institutions of higher learning. “We’re pigeonholing them at a time when they don’t have any experience,” says Amba Brown, psychologist and author of Finding Your Path: A Guide to Life & Happiness After School. “We need to focus more on what their interests are.” Education is never wasted, Brown says, but there’s value in trying out different paths. “It takes that pressure off of success at an early age,” she says.
Bernadotte understands that college is not for everyone but still strongly believes in the power of education — the same value her parents instilled at a young age. Beyond 12 has also expanded to include community colleges and two-year programs, recognizing there are education options outside a four-year degree.
While Bernadotte doesn’t have much free time, when she’s not working you’ll usually find her reading or spending time with her husband and their 7-year-old son. She also takes trips down to Florida as often as possible to visit Mommy Claire, who’s turning 104 this coming week.
If Beyond 12 is doing its job right, Bernadotte says, it won’t exist in another decade. “High schools and colleges should be doing this on their own,” she says. But until then, she’ll keep guiding lost kids like herself to the finish line.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Alex Bernadotte
- What’s the last book you read? Becoming by Michelle Obama.
- What do you worry about? I worry about the future of our country. The division and the rhetoric is becoming so separate. I worry about the growing hatred and what that means for my child.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Friends. I have a rich array of friends who keep me thinking and laughing.
- Who’s your hero? My grandmother, Mommy Claire. The first badass woman I ever knew.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to write a book: nonfiction, but still trying to figure out if it’s my story or Beyond 12’s story.