Teacher’s Encouragement Turned Underprivileged Kid Into a Mentor

"That hidden talent is there. You just have to understand how to find it
Andrew Thomas August 20, 2018

This man grew up during a turbulent era in a rough neighborhood. The idea of getting out, and even pursuing higher education was far-fetched, until a mentor helped him seize an opportunity—then, there was no stopping him.

Art Langer grew up in a low-income family in the Bronx, New York, about five blocks from Yankee Stadium.

He went to junior high school in the Morris Avenue neighborhood, a tough, lower-middle class area at the time.

The neighborhood was divided, and ethnic and racial groups stuck to their own. At the time, each group had their own turf, and it was unwise to stray into another group’s space.

Crime and social unrest made Langer’s neighborhood an even more dangerous place to grow up in.

Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (John Moore/Getty Images)

None of Langer’s family had ever gone to college. But, unlike a lot of other kids in the neighborhood, he got an opportunity to expand his horizons. Langer had always been good at art, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

When he was 13 years old, a teacher came up to him one day and told him that he had a talent, and that Sack’s Quality Furniture Store was offering a scholarship for kids who liked to draw and paint. Did he want to give it a shot?

The teacher nominated him, and Langer received the scholarship.

There, Langer met a man named Mr. Ness, who was impressed by Langer’s talent. He asked him if he was going to apply to the High School of Music and Art or the High School of Art and Design, and if he had a portfolio.

“What’s that?” Langer responded to both questions.

Mr. Ness grabbed Langer by the collar and gave him a talking to.

He was not going to let Langer’s talent go to waste: if Langer applied to both schools, he would give him a second scholarship.

(Courtesy of Zachary Halper)

With that, Mr. Ness became Langer’s mentor.

Mr. Ness and Langer’s father helped him produce his portfolio and he applied to both schools.

Right before the interviews, Mr. Ness gave him another pep talk.

“Look, I know your friends, I know your neighborhood. You’re going to make both schools, you’re that good. And don’t you forget it,” Langer recalled Mr. Ness telling him.

“When I walked out, after drawing, and being interviewed, and reviewing, I just knew I was going to make it,” Langer said.

Langer got into both schools, and ended up going to the High School of Music and Art.

A. Philip Randolph Campus High School is a Collegiate Gothic Revival building located on West 135th Street in Harlem. …

Posted by The New York Landmarks Conservancy on Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Because of Mr. Ness’s encouragement, his future life started to look very different.

“If you’re locked into poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, you tend to be locked in. I would not have been exposed to the things I was exposed to at Music and Art,” Langer explained.

He met kids from all over New York that he would not have met otherwise.

“It broadened my culture,” Langer explained.

While art gave him the initial way out, after Langer graduated, he took a different professional route. In the 1970s, computing was an exciting developing field.

He got involved in the computer technology business, but to earn a decent salary, what he really needed was a computer science degree.

He was young, married, and had two young children to support. So Langer enrolled in Queens College night school.

He soon realized he was smart enough to earn a degree, it would just require some dedication.

It would be an arduous journey to complete his degree. He was working, taking care of his family, and going to school all at the same time.

Langer held a full-time job as a computer operator in Manhattan. He’d take the train home to then get in his car to drive to class three, sometimes four, nights a week.

He spent time with his kids on the weekends, and would take care of them after he returned from night class during the week so he could let his wife sleep.

He often worked late into the night completing his assignments.

“I had a lot of support from my family, which was great. But that wears on you over a period of nine years,” Langer explained.

It took Langer nine years of diligent work and study to earn his degree in computer science in 1979.

(Courtesy of Zachary Halper)

His hard work paid off, and he found a job at Coopers and Lybrand, which is now PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“That really put me in an upper echelon corporation,” Langer explained.

From then on, it was just upwards. He rose quickly through the firm, and was identified as a potential partner. Pursuit of an MBA followed.

He went to Iona College, again at night, while working and being there for his family.

Five years later in 1987, Langer earned his MBA.

During this time, he was also teaching at Columbia University at night.

He was working full time, but Columbia made him an offer. He could continue to work, and if he got into a doctoral program at Columbia, the university would pay for it.

The first time he applied, he was rejected. Not one to give up, he applied a second time. This time he was accepted.

By this time, Langer had gotten skilled at going to school at night while working. He earned his doctoral degree in Educational Leadership in 1999.

He’d reached the peak of his education.

Langer was teaching at Columbia when a student from the technology management program came to him.

The Alma Mater statue at Columbia University. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The student was working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Harlem, and was teaching 50 people how to fix computers. However, the student was concerned that none of them would find employment at the end of it.

The student asked if these individuals could develop some websites for Columbia for free. The bureaucracy of getting approval for a project like this was not likely to happen quickly, but Langer was interested.

Langer began teaching web development classes to these people, and many of them ended up being hired away. This was just the beginning of something much bigger.

From there, Langer developed a science-based way to recruit and assimilate untapped talent into companies looking to diversify their workforce.

(Courtesy of Zachary Halper)

He published a paper on his findings, and presented it to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Langer turned his methodology into a business plan for helping under-served and veteran populations find fulfilling employment.

Eventually Prudential Financial invested $250,000 in this program that would become Workforce Opportunity Services.

Since its inception in 2005, Langer and Workforce Opportunity Services have helped more than 3,800 people get training and find employment in large companies they might not have otherwise had a chance to work for.

Now he’s Mr. Ness.

“That hidden talent is there. You just have to understand how to find it,” he said.