Mark Duhon (BSBA ’88) knows what he’s up against; his organization trumpets the statistics: every year in the U.S., more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school. That’s 7,000 students a day, one student every 26 seconds.
Those sobering numbers are what drives the Fisher alumnus’ nonprofit organization, HighSight. And from a rented office inside a church a few blocks from what used to be the infamous Cabrini-Green housing complex in Chicago, Mark has made it his mission to change those statistics — one high school student at a time.
“I’ve lived a life where education made a difference,” says Mark. “I’m really motivated to keep helping more and more kids — to show them the way to education and how it can impact their future.”
He knows firsthand how someone, or something, can impact and influence the trajectory of one’s life. One of his earliest childhood memories was of his family accidentally getting caught in the middle of a neighborhood race riot during the summer of 1968.
He was three years old that day, and the memory — still vivid — foreshadowed what would eventually become Mark’s socially driven, professional calling.
The youngest of six, he grew up in Akron, Ohio, and describes his family as “blue-collar at best.”
“My parents were simple people and lived a principle-centered, values-driven life,” says Mark. “They raised us to be aware and to care about what was going on around us.”
His humble beginnings and tenacious work ethic have taught him to appreciate things a little more — a background that helps him better coach the young people he serves through HighSight, a wildly successful nonprofit organization, which he co-founded, that is helping underrepresented high school students prepare for college.
Learning to learn
When Mark and his brother Patrick (BA ’84) stepped onto Ohio State’s campus, they were first-generation college students self-financing their degrees through grit and laborious work.
“There were weeks I would work 60 hours on top of going to class,” says Mark, who, as a student, held multiple part-time jobs in property management, landscaping and bartending as a means to fund his business education.
Given his early exposure to and passion for social responsibility, Mark acknowledges his choice to study business might seem unorthodox, but understanding finance, accounting and marketing is what has helped HighSight succeed.
“I was always curious,” says Mark. “But, without a doubt, Fisher taught me how to learn — how to absorb what I was learning, how to ask ‘why.’ That’s probably the single greatest thing Fisher did for me.”
While at Fisher, he made a concerted effort to build relationships with his professors and to seek out mentors who didn’t look or think like him. One of these professors once told Mark that he didn’t see him in the corporate business world — that he saw him working with underrepresented young men.
“I didn’t remember that until years later,” Mark says. “Those professors knew me better than I knew myself, and they knew my future before I did.”
After graduating from Ohio State, Mark spent time in New York and Chicago getting even more experience understanding vulnerable populations. He volunteered and joined Patrick who was working for a homeless shelter in New York.
“Volunteering at that shelter was eye-opening and clarified the direction I was going to take my career,” says Mark.
From New York, he took a position at the University of Chicago working in grant and research administration. While there, his love of learning propelled him to enroll in graduate classes in education and urban studies. He simultaneously started volunteering at an elementary school in Cabrini-Green, a public housing project in the heart of Chicago that, at the time, was synonymous with violence, crime and poor living conditions. Ever curious, Mark began wondering how the students he volunteered with were faring in middle and high school.
The answer was heartbreaking.
“Some would lose their lives to violence, while others went to prison or got caught up in drugs. Teen pregnancy was common, and many of them dropped out of high school,” says Mark.
Once Mark understood the problem, he created a plan to change the outcome.
In 1995, Mark and another elementary school volunteer incorporated HighSight, an organization that provides scholarships, tutoring, mentoring, leadership development and college readiness programs that create new educational possibilities for high school students from low-income families in Chicago.
“Mark has always wanted to understand,” says Steve Salopek, Mark’s longtime friend and a senior lecturer in finance at Fisher. “He wants to understand why things are a certain way, like why are inner-city high schools less successful in high school graduation rates and college admissions and graduation rates?”
Where others see underachievers in these students, Mark sees untapped potential.
Expanding college access and student success through a disciplined college counseling formula has yielded amazing results. During the past decade, 100% of HighSight graduates have received a full-tuition scholarship to at least one four-year college.
“It’s absolutely amazing to watch the growth of the students, and how the program has made an impact on them and in their community,” says Steve.
Mark’s impact on students isn’t limited to the South Side of Chicago. Once a semester, he speaks to Fisher students enrolled in Steve’s “FinGigs” Career Class, an opportunity that allows leaders to share their career paths and to give students a behind-the-scenes, real-world look at the adversity and successes they’ve faced.
“Mark is running a business,” says Steve. “In terms of business people I admire, Mark is at the top of that list.”
Mark sets high expectations at HighSight. From day one, he tells the students he’s not there to help them get through high school — he’s there to help them make choices that will set them up for success in whatever comes after high school.
“My mother always expected me to go to college,” says HighSight alumna, Delana Colvin. “For me, I never knew how to get to college until my involvement with HighSight. They provided the resources and mentoring throughout the application process which helps first-generation students like myself successfully navigate their way to higher education.”
Not only did Delana earn her undergraduate degree in communications from DePauw University in Indiana, but she also went to graduate school and earned dual master’s degrees in organizational communications and training and development from DePaul University in Chicago.
“The ripple effect of my HighSight experience will never end,” says Delana, an account specialist for Pfizer’s Hospital Business Unit. “When I have my own children, the expectations will be different for them than they were for me before HighSight.”
Through his expectations and high standards, Mark is building a community. His tireless efforts to ensure HighSight students have what they need — not just scholarships, but a support system to help them reach their potential — is why alumni continue to mentor and donate and why families continue to trust him with their children’s future.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think I can change the future for every student,” says Mark. “Even though it’s on a small scale, I’ve been able to impact these students and create generational change for them and their families.”