A story of hope from the CEO Program

When one hears the letters ‘CEO’, a few things might come to mind: Power, success, or perhaps prestige.

Anttimo Bennett, current President of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, brings new meaning to the acronym. On Wednesday, May 20, 2009, Bennett spoke to students at the college about his own success story.

Bennett was a former student enrolled in Bellevue College’s Career Education Option (CEO) Program. The CEO Program is geared toward 16-20 year old students who have yet to obtain a High School Diploma and are in need of a little extra guidance.

Bennett, now 27 years old, was the child of drug-addicted parents. He was placed into foster care at six years old, and by the age of 12 was in the custody of his great aunt and uncle’s care.

Bennett entered a period in his youth he calls the “Nasty Thug”, in which he was cajoled by a group of youth in his neighborhood to become a member of their “Union”, or gang. A former straight-A student, Bennett was expelled from public school in the seventh grade.

His great aunt and uncle were relentless though, ensuring that Bennett lead a better life. They moved to Renton (WASH), and attempted home schooling him before stumbling across some luck in the system: Bennett could attend high school without actually being a student.

From the grades nine through twelve, Bennett attended Lindbergh High School in Renton, as part of the track team and school band, where he played the saxophone. By the age of 15, he was working at the local youth center mentoring younger children. By 18 he was living onsite at the youth center.

Bennett obtained his General Education Diploma (GED) at Renton Technical Community College. Having not officially attended high school, this was a marked accomplishment for him.

Next, Bennett enrolled in Bellevue College (then Bellevue Community College) and became part of The CEO Program.  He told the audience, however, that he didn’t take the program seriously and was not granted permission to continue to participate.

But in 2004, at the age of 22, a pivotal change in his life brought a time of reflection for Bennett: He became a father to a baby girl.

“I wanted to be a good father, the father that I didn’t have,” Bennett said. “Not to discredit my great uncle…[but] I needed to be a great biological father to my daughter.”

Bennett transferred to Shoreline Community College, re-enrolled in their branch of the CEO Program, and was back on track.

In 2006, he graduated and was accepted to the University of Washington.

During his first quarter, Bennett found himself struggling to acclimate himself to the change in atmosphere and class, and was put onto Academic Probation. Bennett contacted The CEO Program at Shoreline Community College, who networked him with Seattle Education Access, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young people achieve their dreams of attending college in the King County area.

After his first quarter at UW, Bennett said he began to “dress for success,” “wearing suits” and noted “people began to treat me differently.” When things began once again looking up for Bennett, he asked himself what he could give back to his community.

Bennett, who still volunteers for the youth center, began working in the juvenile justice system, became involved with the Black Student Union, the African Student Union, the Kappa Alpha PSI Fraternity, and served on the National Pan Hellenic Council. And for the 2008-2009 term, Bennett was elected to serve as President for the Associated Students of the University of Washington.

“I dedicate my life to this giving back,” Bennett said, “and I would not have been here if it weren’t for The CEO Program. People saw in me what I see in every one of you.”

The room was eerily silent, as Anttimo had captivated everyone’s attention. A long pause passed and Anttimo shook his head and said with a tone that indicated he was fighting back tears, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…I want you to keep going no matter what you have been told about your past or your background, because each and every one of you is valuable.”