When Chris Harvell, B.S. ’98, an academically inclined student in D.C.’s Dunbar High School’s pre-engineering program, was called into his guidance counselor’s office one day in his senior year, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I was like ‘What’s going on?’ and I was actually mad because I was missing my AP classes,” he said with a laugh. “I was worried it was going to impact my grade.”
Inside the counselor’s office at Dunbar High School – which was founded in 1870 as the nation’s first public high school for Black children – was a George Washington University recruiter who was scouting talented D.C. public school students as candidates for the 21st Century Scholarship, now known as the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship, a full, four-year scholarship covering tuition, room and board, books and fees at the university.
“Academics was my sport, so when the GW rep came to my school, it felt like how my friends would describe college coaches coming and talking to them about their sport,” Harvell recalled. “There’s something to be said about a scholarship making students feel wanted and desired.”
Harvell—who already received several other full-ride scholarship offers —applied on the spot, and during his last semester of high school, he enrolled in two courses at GW to get a feel for the university.
“I started taking classes in January, and by February I was signing with GW,” said Harvell, who still to this day has his scholarship letter framed in his office.
“I fell in love with the campus because it was just so different than anything that I had experienced at that point in my life, and that’s really what made this scholarship so special to me: the experience I had on campus and the connections I made with the students I met,” he added. “It made me feel that it was the right place for me.”
Every day Harvell would return home to his grandmother—a hardworking Southern woman who had stressed the importance of education—and tell her about his day on campus, usually with a smile on his face.
“She was extremely happy for me. She always said to me, ‘Christopher, I want you to go as far as you can with your education.’ And that’s why the GW scholarship was special because it was like, ‘Okay, now I can take my family on a different trajectory,’” said Harvell, who would be the first person in his family to attend college.
Harvell finished his high school career as D.C. Public Schools’ first Black male valedictorian in 20 years, but just two months after graduation, he and his friends were victims of random gun violence. Harvell was shot several times, and one of his friends died as a result of the attack.
“It really rocked and devastated my community and my network of friends,” he said. “I was just so angry that summer.”
Harvell considers himself lucky, however, because despite the tragedy, his life was “altered but not derailed,” and he was able to attend GW in the fall as planned.
“Even though I had already taken classes at GW as a high schooler, it was totally different when I arrived on campus as a freshman. I felt like ‘Holy smokes. I did it. I’m actually in college,’” he recalled. “It was a very, very important moment for me.”
During his time at GW, Harvell continued to push himself academically, enrolling in summer classes, holding multiple internships, volunteering at the Multicultural Student Services Center and serving in the Black Student Union.
“Every day that I was there, my scholarship was the thing that fueled me,” he said. “Every time I was in the classroom, I was competing against myself because I wanted to perform at my highest level, just like an athlete.”
After graduation, Harvell moved to New York to work as a technology consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he had previously interned. Within months, he spearheaded the creation of a recruiting initiative at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to help increase the company’s diversity.
It was on one of those recruiting trips at Spelman College in Atlanta that Harvell met his future wife, Lezli. He gave her his card and for the next few weeks, every time she called, he would transfer her to one of the recruiting specialists, thinking that her interest was in the company.
“Then finally she said, ‘No, dummy, I want to talk with you,'” he said, chuckling at the memory.
The two became not only partners in life, but in business, as well; after Harvell received his M.B.A. from Columbia University and Lezli finished dentistry school, they cofounded Dental Kidz, a dental practice in Newark, N.J. aimed at providing standard pediatric dental services such as cleanings and braces as well as specialized services like pediatric dental surgery.
Through the Dental Kidz Foundation, which in part benefits Spelman College students from Jamaica and sub-Saharan African countries, they host the Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE), an Anthem-Award winning compendium of curated culinary events aimed at celebrating trailblazers of color in the food, wine and spirits industries.
“She’s a brilliant, brilliant woman,” Harvell said of his wife, whose love of gourmet food spurred IDE and who hosts its associated podcast, IDE Impolite Conversation, which explores racial, cultural and societal issues. “Marrying her was definitely my greatest achievement.
“You know, when you look back at your life, you think about all the things that you could have done differently, but those hiccups or setbacks are all part of the mosaic that makes up your life,” he continued. “The tears and the frustration…that’s part of it, but my wife and our five daughters are the root of all the beautiful things that have happened to me.”
Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.