Miguel A. Centeno

Sociology, Woodrow Wilson School

When Professor Miguel Centeno talks about the importance of college for lower-income students, he isn't simply drawing on his expertise as a leading sociologist. He's also speaking from experience.

For Centeno, college was never a foregone conclusion. At age 10, he immigrated to the United States from Cuba with his mother, who raised him on her own. In his neighborhood, most of Centeno’s peers never even considered college.

Thanks to the encouragement and guidance he received from a relative, Centeno took a monumental step: He applied for admission to Yale University. As a result of that early nudge, and hard work and talent, Centeno completed his B.A. He then went on to complete an M.B.A. and a doctorate in sociology, both from his alma mater.

Today, Centeno teaches in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Through his pet project, “Mapping Globalization,” he pursues leading-edge scholarship on the structures of international trade and the asymmetries of power and equality at play in the global economy. His work has earned him grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

While Centeno succeeded in making the leap into the Ivy League, he's never forgotten the challenges he faced as a student from a less advantaged background. Those memories inspired him to found the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP). PUPP is based on the idea that academically gifted students from low-income families need more than financial aid to help them succeed at top-tier colleges and universities. The program seeks to help these students develop the necessary academic skills, confidence and leadership abilities to flourish at top institutions of higher learning.

Centeno decided to found the program in the summer of 2000 after seeing data about the socioeconomic background of students at Princeton. He was shocked to learn how few came from less advantaged backgrounds at that time. While Princeton was just starting to consider implementing a “no loan” financial aid program, he realized that access to financial assistance was only part of the problem for these students.

“The real problem is figuring out how to find talented kids who have never thought of applying and get them to apply,” says Centeno. “We need to give smart, hardworking kids from these lower-income backgrounds the information and tools they need to get here and compete with students who have experienced greater advantages.” Through an intensive summer institute and year-round academic programs, PUPP reaches out to these kids while they are in high school to give them the skills and encouragement they need.

The program has seen great successes. Centeno notes that in 2006, PUPP participants received offers of admission from Princeton, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Tulane and other excellent institutions. “These are kids who might not have gone to college at all,” Centeno comments.

For Centeno, his work creating this program for kids from backgrounds like his own is comparable to his more high-profile scholarly work. “Starting PUPP is the professional accomplishment I'm most proud of,” he says.