College Access Program Celebrates 20 Years Helping Baltimore Students Attain Higher Education


Building STEPS, college access and career development program for Baltimore City students, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Available to students who have at least a 3.0 GPA, the program is built on the principle that a college education changes an individual’s life.

It provides a wide range of programming to bright Baltimore City high school students to ensure college completion and career success; supplements students’ classroom learning, and exposes underserved high school youth to science and technology-based careers.

Primarily, Building STEPS helps students excel in fields where minorities are overwhelmingly underrepresented, and among its mottos is, “Where you come from does not determine where you go.”

“We have decided that 20 years is such a milestone that we’re celebrating,” Executive Director Debra Hettleman said. “There’s a lot to celebrate, including that we now have hundreds of kids who would not otherwise have a college degree.”

Building STEPS partners with 15 Baltimore City high schools to find high-achieving students in their sophomore year. In addition to a STEM-based curriculum, Building STEPS helps students apply for college and fill out financial aid forms.

There are no admission charges, and the program relies entirely on philanthropic support.

“More than 80 percent of Building STEPS program graduates earn a college degree compared to the 11 percent

national average for low-income, first-generation college students,” Hettleman said.

Each year, Building STEPS provides students an education in workplace dynamics and counseling is offered in college and career choices. A Prep portion engages sophomores in hands-on science-oriented activities while a junior seminar series exposes students to careers that rely on science and technology through interactive seminars hosted by local businesses and institutions. A summer experience includes a paid internship and weekly professional and academic programming. There are also college workshops, college connect, alumni services, and other programs.

Students in the Building STEPS program learned how medical dummies and simulations are used to train doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Courtesy Photo | Building STEPS

Students in the Building STEPS program learned how medical dummies and simulations are used to train doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Once accepted into Building STEPS, students begin to participate in the program in the fall of their junior year.

Almost all Building STEPS students are the first in their family to earn a college degree, and many are the first to graduate from high school.

Program officials are huge supporters of city schools, but not everything can be accomplished in that setting alone, according to Hettleman.

“Building STEPS was built on the premise that our kids are really smart, high-achieving kids,” Hettleman said. “If you’re a high-achieving kid and you have no support for college access or completion, what do you do? Our high-achieving kids may not have the resources, and it’s not just money. It’s about someone who’s able to say, ‘what do you think you might want to be when you grow up?’

“Because we’re all about STEM, we show what a career look likes, and we say let’s figure out what college is for you; and let’s make sure you are taking the [exams] and making sure you keep your grades up; and that your application is getting in on time and that you fill out [financial aid forms]. So, we are there to support that student who should be in college.”

Hettleman says there is no reason this program can’t occur in other cities like Philadelphia and Detroit. Successful students have already contributed millions to the local economy after graduating college and starting high-paying careers.

“They’re building their careers, they’re building their families and 20 years later, they are physical therapists, doctors, working in hospitals and law firms,” Hettleman said. “They are sending me pictures with their spouses and their kids, and I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh, our founding chairman had this idea and said let’s see what happens. What happened is that we’ve turned out hundreds of successful young professionals.”

For more information about Building STEPS, visit: