Head of the Class: Justine Stamen '92

By Chad Galts / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
Justine Stamen '92 knows tragedy - and how to rise above it. On the eve of her high school graduation, her childhood friend Teak Dyer was abducted, raped, and murdered. Nine years later DeWitt White, a seventeen-year-old student at the Brooklyn nonprofit agency where Stamen was working, was shot and killed. Losing Dyer was nearly unbearable, Stamen says, "but I didn't feel responsible. With Dewitt," she adds. "I did feel responsible." A promising and talented pianist, DeWitt had a bright future. Stamen felt she could have done more for him.

So in February 1998 Stamen quit her job, moved into a friend's living room, and founded the Teak Fellowship - a mentoring program that would give students like White a better chance not just to survive, but to thrive. Designed to help low-income students get into and succeed at top high schools, Teak targets kids, selected on merit from New York City middle schools, who are "at the starting point of getting into college," Stamen says. The program offers classes in everything from math to economics to drumming, and gives advice on what schools might be the best match for them in their quest for college admission. "We want them to go to schools that are safe," Stamen says, "that offer outside-of-class activities, and have teachers with a history of preparing kids to go on to college." Most of the schools Stamen's students want to attend aren't cheap, of course, so she and her staff help with filling out financial-aid applications or soliciting donations.

Many Teak students are the children of immigrants and often the first member of their families to consider college, so Stamen also organizes programs and activities to broaden their notions of what they can accomplish. Last summer, for example, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton took Stamen and her students to a New York Liberty basketball game. The program's guest speakers have included an Olympic gold medalist, Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur genius-grant winners, and former Massachusetts governor William Weld.

Stamen's experience (she has worked in nonprofits since graduation) has surely helped her along the way. But the biggest reason Teak has thrived, she says, is the students themselves. Students from Teak's first three classes were admitted into top high schools, and the program has secured $4.9 million in financial-aid commitments; Teak's budget consists of donations from more than 500 foundations, corporations, and individuals. "This is not a hard sell," she explains. "Helping kids who are motivated and dying to learn is something we all agree on, regardless of politics."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2002