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Currents: progressive scholars

Colby-Sawyer College's Partnership with Boston-Area High Schools Increases Opportunity and Diversity through Cohorts of New Students

This fall 19 students from two Boston-area schools--Cambridge Rindge & Latin School and Malden High School--will join the Colby-Sawyer College community as first-year students. The arrival of these groups or “cohorts” of closely knit students from two schools is part of Colby-Sawyer College's new Progressive Scholars Program, which seeks to provide educational opportunities for mainly first-generation college students, and to bring more geographic, racial and ethnic diversity to the college.

The idea emerged in a lunchtime conversation between President Tom Galligan and Greg Matthews, the vice president for Enrollment Management. The college had been exploring the Posse Program, a well-established initiative that identifies, recruits and prepares multi-cultural teams or “posses” of students from public high schools to attend top-tier colleges across the country. The two administrators realized the college could create its own program with similarly ambitious goals.

“We liked the idea of bringing cohorts of students who will provide wonderful support for each other on campus,” Matthews says. “We're very interested in creating greater diversity at Colby-Sawyer, and when we looked at our diversity on campus today, we saw that we mainly attract rural and suburban students. That led us to think that we could form partnerships with some urban high schools with which we already have established connections, to achieve our goals.”

Jen Jacques, Colby-Sawyer's senior associate director of Admissions and director of International and Diversity Recruitment, led the effort to build on existing relationships with both high schools through meeting with their guidance counselors and students, and inviting both groups to campus for day and overnight visits last fall and this spring. While she expected interest from students, she and Matthews were surprised and pleased by the “raging torrent” of enthusiasm from students at both schools.

“Some of these students are first-generation Americans from Haiti, Brazil, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, and many are bi- or trilingual,” she said. “Many will be first-generation college students. They have amazing stories and strong personalities; they're warm and vibrant in every sense. What they'll add to this campus we won't be able to quantify.

“They just want support and flexibility once they come to Colby-Sawyer,” added Jacques. “One student told me, 'I love that you're interested in us as individuals and not just recruiting us as numbers.' They want that fine balance of being supported without standing out too much.”

On Their Way

Sandino Volmar, a senior at Malden High School, came to the United States from Haiti less than a year ago to attend high school and go on to college. A voracious learner who often rises before dawn to study, Volmar has taught himself English from reading the dictionary and dozens of library books each month. He also loves math, which his father began teaching him at age one, and he hopes to study business and accounting in college.

“For me, fun is learning something new. My dad is a wise man, and I want to be a wise man, too,” he said with a smile. “I want to do my best for all these people who are 100 percent behind me--my dad, my mother, all my teachers and mentors at (Malden High), and the people at Colby-Sawyer. Everyone who trusts me and believes in me, I want them to be proud of me.”

Lauren Katz, another senior from Malden High School, said she and her cohort of friends who will attend Colby-Sawyer represent “urban life” and will have a greater chance “to make a difference” with a college education. Katz hopes to study English and become a teacher, as well as pursue her interests in psychology and art. She noted that because Colby-Sawyer is smaller than her high school, she believes she'll get the individual attention and mentoring that she'd like at college.

“I loved walking around the Colby-Sawyer campus and going to classes. You don't have to take a shuttle; you can walk everywhere you need to go,” she said. “Everyone was so funny and friendly and nice.”

A student from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, 17-year-old Chris Blake is a friendly and social young man who seemed to be the center of his friends' attention at the reception. Blake would like to study business management at Colby-Sawyer, but admits the sports teams, especially basketball and baseball, are also a big draw for him. He's lived in New Hampshire for a summer, working for his uncle in the Lakes Region, so he's comfortable with the idea of small-town living. “I don't mind being out here, especially with so many of my friends going with me,” he said.

Chris's mother, Audrey Blake, seems remarkably calm about sending her firstborn off to college and pleased by her son's initiative in applying to the program. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity, and it's helped me relax a bit about the financial burden," she said. “I'm a single parent. Colby-Sawyer will give Chris a chance to have a different experience and to fine-tune the way he communicates and interacts with people. He's had a well-rounded childhood and has been an average student, but I know he can do well if he applies himself.”

A Pilot Partnership

Leslie Davis coordinates the Advancement via Individual Determination Program (AVID) at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, which supports and prepares highly motivated students who want to go on to college. The program teaches students to develop organizational and time management skills and good study habits, prepare for standardized tests, and finally, to find the right college. Davis helped to identify the students in the AVID program at her school who would be a good fit for Colby-Sawyer College.

“Some of the students coming to Colby-Sawyer like the idea of being ambassadors for their school, and they're looking forward to that,” she said. “I've made it clear that this is a great opportunity for them to be role models.”

Their visits to the Colby-Sawyer campus both excited the students and exposed them to an environment starkly different from what they're accustomed to, according to Davis.

“They came to visit Colby-Sawyer in December and sat in on classes, and for those on the fence, that's what made the difference. I think the quality of education was a big part of hooking them,” she said. “But they also made it clear that they were taken aback by the lack of diversity, and we've had many conversations about that. They have been fortunate to live with a lot of diversity in Cambridge—where there are people from every country and culture—so that's what they're used to.”

Fortunately, the students will also have a built-in zone of comfort at Colby-Sawyer, created by the students from their school and their new friends at Malden High, Davis pointed out. The two groups met at a recent reception and dinner in Cambridge sponsored by Colby-Sawyer in celebration of the Progressive Scholars and their families.

“When the kids from the two schools met, it was like an amoeba formed,” she said. “They just sort of clung to each other and talked and laughed,” she said. “These kids are very versatile and adaptable—they get along with everyone. I think they'll do that at Colby-Sawyer as well.”

Davis envisions that her students and those from Malden High will enjoy success at Colby-Sawyer and lay the groundwork for a thriving partnership that will continue to benefit both the high schools and the college. “It was clear to see that our students are well aware of the great opportunity before them, and recognize what they bring to the table. They have the chance to leave footprints for others to follow.”

The Progressive Scholars also met President Tom Galligan at the Cambridge reception, where he had a chance to share his favorite characteristic of Colby-Sawyer College: “We make every decision at Colby-Sawyer by asking how our students will benefit.” In his animated and friendly way, he explained why the program will benefit both the students from Cambridge Rindge & Latin and Malden High, as well as the Colby-Sawyer College community.

He told the students that at Colby-Sawyer, they'd never have to wait long if they wanted to perform in theatre, host a radio show or chat with their professor. Colby-Sawyer's small size and close faculty-student relationships,he emphasized, would give them early access to the academic and co-curricular experiences of their choice. Equally important, the college community always benefits from multiple perspectives of the world, he said, and Colby-Sawyer specifically seeks, and will be strengthened by, a more ethnically, racially, nationally and internationally diverse student body.

“Your contributions can make us a better and more robust place,” he told the students.

Humanities Professor Ann Page Stecker, one of two Colby-Sawyer faculty members who attended the reception, calls the Progressive Scholars initiative “an impressive institutional response to the Colby-Sawyer College community's desire to open itself to multiple perspectives in new ways.”

“We express an openness to diversity as one of our learning outcomes. And now we see the college taking direct action to realize this vision,” she said. “Just as the Wesson Honors Program and its scholars seek to ask impertinent questions and explore alternative perspectives, the Progressive Scholars initiative seeks to open new dialogues within our community. I want as a member of the faculty to be part of any initiative that puts us as a community on thresholds, in-between places where, as at nature's ecotones, we experience diverse perspectives, diverse voices--new ideas about how to live in a complicated world.”

The Impact on Campus

Holly Tumiel '08 has worked as a tour guide in Admissions for four years and has watched the Progressive Scholars program evolve, and has become acquainted with many of the incoming students. She expressed enthusiasm about them and the program's potential.

“I think the program is an amazing opportunity. The students we are welcoming in are all great people who will provide this school with the diversity we are always asking for,” she said. “Every time I see Progressive Scholar, they always have a smile on and are opening their arms for a hug. I have been lucky to have the chance to get to know them. Just from the few short interactions I have had with them, I feel like a different person. They make you feel good about the work everyone at Colby-Sawyer has done for them. I am sad that I won't be here next year to watch what they are going to do for this school.

“This program gives students who may not have ever thought about college a chance to prove themselves. They may also not have thought that college was even an option. We are showing them that it is, and giving them a chance to come from a city to a lovely town to do just that, and make a name for themselves. These kids are going places, and they are going to let everyone know along the way.

“To keep this program running, I feel like the enthusiasm needs to be kept high, but I don't think this will be a problem for the group we have coming in. The students need to stay involved not only in the programs, but also in what Colby-Sawyer has to offer in its everyday schedule.”

The Progressive Scholars can expect a good deal of support at Colby-Sawyer and the “ear of the administration,” according to Greg Matthews in Admissions.

“An important part of learning in a residential campus comes from living with people, learning to care about each other and understanding each other's perspectives,” said Matthews. “But when you have students of very similar backgrounds, you don't have to stretch yourself and broaden your perspectives as much. That's why it's so important to diversify and internationalize the campus with students from all backgrounds and broad perspectives.”

Jacques believes Colby-Sawyer students would like to see greater diversity, and that they will respond positively to the new group of students. “There's been a lot of initial curiosity, and that may signal that the need for diversity is a consistent theme on campus. I think students are aware that it's overdue.”

-Kimberly Swick Slover