The story of how a young man from Marietta, Texas, could rise to become an authority on how underprivileged youth might succeed in life could be something of fairy tale. But in the case of Dr. Robert Harper, the tale is true.
Harper is introducing his Hope Initiative In Linden this week.
Hope Initiative is a nonprofit that leverages support of former NFL football players and funding from the National Football League's social justice matching grant program, to help young people discover a ladder of success they can climb.
Linden's City Council, law enforcement and other civic leaders have heard Harper's plan and are betting that the local-young-man-who-made-good can make a difference.
Harper, reared in Marietta, is the son of Robert Harper and Lawanda Hicks Warren. He is a 1996 graduate of Linden-Kildare schools, and when he crossed the stage that year, his first goal was basketball.
He won a scholarship to play for LSU-Shreveport.
"I had dreams of the NBA," he said. "And I had a cousin in Ron Harper who did go to the NBA. He was my hero. I wanted to follow him, but he was 6-6 and could run, shoot and jump. I didn't quite have those genes. So I majored in business administration, and after graduation in 2000 spent two years working in corporate America."
At the suggestion of a friend, Harper attended graduate school at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where in 2003 he earned a master's degree in education with a focus on educational technology.
"I still didn't know what I wanted, so I continued school to achieve a specialist's degree in educational leadership and instruction."
This time, while in school, he found his future.
"While I was there and knowing what I did about how to be successful in college, I got in touch with my best friend in high school, Larry Allen of Linden, and encouraged him to come to college.
"I told him I could help him navigate the academy and become a star."
"What's a star?" Allen asked.
"That's a student who is smart, talented and responsible," Harper responded.
"Larry did well, and after I saw the progress he made, I said to myself, this is what I want to do with the rest my life. My goal will be helping students transition from high school to college and then to careers."
Harper said he wanted to do this on a larger scale.
"To be effective, I wanted to position myself for the top position on the college campus. That's being president. So I studied what all college presidents had in common and found it was having a doctorate degree. So I applied and got two interviews, Texas A&M University and Grambling State University."
Texas A&M, he found, wouldn't accept all his graduate hours, but Grambling accepted most.
"So I went to school there and earned the doctorate in education in 2008."
Harper's professional experience began with five years of employment with Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant, Texas. Then he became director of enrollment management at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas.
"After one year, I was promoted to associate vice president for student services at Jarvis."
Next was Texas College in Tyler, Texas, where he was assistant vice president for academic affairs for five years.,
His final college work was with Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, where he was dean for student engagement and retention. It was time to make anther decision, he said.
"I found I was helping students, but I was limited to one institution. I wanted to spread my wings. So I ended there and started working full-time in the nonprofit field."
Before long, Harper had the skills and insight to form his own nonprofit called Hope Initiative, which would help him achieve his goal of aiding students on a larger scale.
"The goal here is education and workforce opportunities for underserved populations," he said.
He found himself comfortable working with schools, colleges, youth service programs and the National Football League, which by then had a foundation to fund social justice initiatives.
"This was about the time Colin Kaepernick kneeled, and the NFL ended up establishing a foundation to focus on social justice issues. Former players especially got involved and are important for helping us achieve the funding necessary."
In 2019, Hope Initiative partnered with 32 former NFL players to hold social justice programs across the country.
"Our initiative helps young adults take advantage of opportunities. Do it early. Plan for future success. We give you tools to be successful."
After the program's successful start in 2019, this year required a change because of the COVID-19 virus. Still, nine former NFL players signed on to assist. Two, Byron Williams and Tony Covington, are here in Linden with Harper for the social justice summit.
"But this may be a blessing in disguise. We are now turning to a virtual presentations, which may reach many more."
The Hope Initiative in Linden is face-to-face, however, since the virus is not so threatening here, Harper said. He added that he is especially happy being back and able to help his own community.
"I do this work over all the country, so now we can roll out the Hope Initiative for the youth here. Our students will engage in community service projects, work hand-in-hand with law enforcement, and if they leave this community, they will know how to properly engage with all the social justice issues they will face."