Colin Powell to Kids: Have a Sense of Shame

Colin Powell says he was not a "bright star," but his family expected success.

ByABC News via logo
April 11, 2008, 12:41 PM

April 11, 2008 — -- Gen. Colin Powell grew up in the South Bronx, and as a C student, was, as he said, "not considered a bright star."

"But there was never any question in my mind or in the mind of any of my cousins in this extended immigrant family that we had an option of not finishing school. It was unthinkable for any of us to go home and say, 'Well, you know, I don't like my teacher, or I had bad grades here, so I'm gonna drop out,'" Powell told Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview for "Good Morning America."

Powell, a four-star general and the first African-American to serve as secretary of state, built his career on public service. Now he has focused those efforts on helping young people through the organization he founded 10 years ago, America's Promise Alliance.

The goal of America's Promise is to give children the fundamental resources they need to succeed -- caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education and opportunities to help others at home, in school and out in the community.

But kids need to take responsibility for their own actions and for achieving success, he said.

Powell said he often tells kids, "Have a sense of shame."

"We gotta put a lot of this burden not just on the schools and on the family but on the kids themselves," he said. "We just can't have them sit in front of the television set watching Jerry Springer as a way of solving problems. We have got to make sure that we give our youngsters a sense of the need for excellence, the need for hard work. And we believe in you. We have expectations for you. Don't disappoint us."

Powell, 70, grew up in the South Bronx, the son of Jamaican parents, and attended City College of New York. He said he often goes back to his alma mater to meet the mostly minority and immigrant students there now.

"I see myself in these youngsters. After I left the State Department, the president of the college put me in a room of about eight kids. They're all from different countries," Powell said.

"And I listened to their stories. I listened to what they've gone through to come to the United States. I listen to how, from poor neighborhoods and families who've never had a college graduate, how these kids were applying themselves," he said.

One-third of all American students don't finish high school, and an alarming 50 percent of minority students don't graduate, according to a recent report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

"It is not just a matter of well, how do we fix high schools? It's a problem of, how do we fix the very beginning? How do we fix the community, the family? How do we start these kids reading at the earliest possible age?" Powell said.

Because of globalization, Americans are competing with billions of people all over the world, Powell said.

"It's essential for our economic well being and our national security," he said. "In such an environment, America cannot stand around and watch half of their kids who are minorities not finish high school or a third of all of our kids not finish high school."