Organization helps Philly teens succeed in college
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- For Ashley Trawick, the dilemma was purely academic.
"The hardest thing is coming up with the title of my major," Trawick, 19, told Ruth De Jesus, associate dean of intercultural advancement at Gettysburg College. The sophomore from southwest Philadelphia is eyeing a mix of developmental psychology and education.
First-generation graduates from Philadelphia public high schools like Trawick once faced much bigger obstacles: How to get into college, how to afford it and, once among the largely white student bodies, how to fit in.
But with a boost from Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that helps inner-city students get into and through college, Trawick is on a free ride at the school. She's maintaining a 3.0-plus grade point average - and even feeling comfortable enough to branch out and design her own major.
"Whatever you come up with," De Jesus advised, "my only recommendation is don't fall in love with it because it might change."
Trawick meets with De Jesus every week to discuss academic, social, personal, and financial issues. At the same time, Futures continues to help, too - supporting students financially, academically and personally from ninth grade through college graduation.
Leaders of both institutions met recently in the city to celebrate the partnership's 12th anniversary. It was the first of its kind and a pioneer nationally.
"How risky this was for everybody," reflected Joan Mazzotti, Philadelphia Futures' executive director.
Of the 48 students who have enrolled at Gettysburg since 2001, nearly three-quarters have either graduated or are still enrolled, Mazzotti said. That statistic looks even stronger when stacked against recent Philadelphia School District numbers:
About 64 percent of high school students graduate within six years.
Only 36 percent of graduates enroll in college.
Only 10 percent finish college within six years of high school graduation, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.
Philadelphia Futures has since partnered with six other colleges - Dickinson, Drexel, Lafayette, Arcadia, Pennsylvania State University and Temple. Overall, 82 percent of the 180 students have graduated or remained enrolled, Mazzotti said.
Students also attend non-partnership colleges. Their retention rate, she said, is 68 percent.
Collectively, the partner colleges and the Brook J. Lenfest Foundation, which is sponsoring students at Penn State and Temple, have contributed $16.8 million in scholarship and grant aid. The colleges provide varying financial support from meeting full needs to making sure students don't have to borrow more than $2,500 a year, Mazzotti said.
Gettysburg, a private liberal arts college that accepts 41 percent of applicants, meets full need - worth $56,820 a year in tuition and room and board.
"It's the right thing to do," said Janet Morgan Riggs, president of Gettysburg College. "We don't want to close our doors to students who have great potential but not the right financial wherewithal. And we benefit, too. ... We're preparing students for personal lives and professional lives in a diverse world."
If it weren't for the program, Laurty Trawick said, his daughter likely would not be in college, even though Ashley graduated fourth in her class from Motivation High School with a 3.81 GPA.
"We didn't have the funds to send her," said Trawick, a retired city trash truck driver.
The program looks for students with academic potential and grit, Mazzotti said. In high school, Futures provides students with weekly sessions on study skills, SAT preparation, essay writing and other topics. Each student has an adult mentor. Colleges host the students for summer programs.
For college, students receive a $6,000 stipend for books and expenses.
Trawick was planning on attending a state school until Futures introduced her to Gettysburg. The Civil War-era brick and white-painted buildings charmed her. She liked the small classes - the professor/student ratio is 10-1. But what really sold her was the scholarship.
"I was like, `Wow, a full ride. This will really make my family happy,'" she said.
Trawick and other students in the program said they found the new environments challenging.
"Without Futures, I don't think I would have survived here at Gettysburg," said Yulaikis Garcia, 21, a senior who graduated from Edison High.
Garcia, a Latin American studies and Spanish major, dropped a class in the first semester, grappled with writing long papers, and struggled to strike a balance between studies and her social life.
"I was able to come back and do well the rest of my years here," said Garcia, daughter of a construction worker and housekeeper. She plans to join the Peace Corps and go into community development.
Vasiljon Cobo, 21, a senior who was born in Albania, says he keeps in mind the wisdom imparted early on by H. Pete Curry Jr., dean of Gettyburg's office of intercultural advancement: "It's not can you do the work. It's will you do the work."
Cobo has earned as many As as Bs.
Seven of the 28 Futures graduates at Gettysburg finished with B averages or higher, and several others were on the cusp.
Of the 13 who did not graduate, Curry said, in most cases the reason was "a strong pull home, a family thing that they find overwhelming."
Students have to learn to make their way socially in an environment that is starkly different from their neighborhoods.
"I can remember a presentation we made at Edison High School," Mazzotti said. "I could have been saying to those parents that we want to send your kids to the moon."
It took Trawick a semester to feel comfortable. She joined the Black Student Union and the gospel choir, as did Garcia. Cobo tutors and sings in the gospel choir. He also went to Spain to study last spring. The staffs from Gettysburg and Futures work together to troubleshoot problems. Futures sheds light on a student's history and family circumstances.
"Pete has me on speed dial," Mazzotti said of Curry. "There are land mines and you never know when one is going to go off."
The partnership has won the support of prominent current and former members of Gettysburg's board of trustees, including Bruce Gordon, former head of the NAACP and a 1968 Gettysburg grad. He was the only African American in his class at Gettysburg and one of only three on campus.
"It was a very challenging experience, to say the least," said Gordon, a Camden native who made his career in telecommunications. "On more than one occasion, I questioned whether I wanted to continue."
As a board member, he wanted to make sure students of color are common on campus. Gettysburg's minority enrollment has grown to about 13 percent, up from about 5 percent since 2001.
"That's not just because I thought it would be in the best interest of people of color," Gordon said. "I thought the majority population would have a much better education if they were in a mixed environment."
Futures and Gettysburg cite the accomplishments of their graduates.
Vincent Costello, `07, co-founded the first black fraternity on campus. He went on to get his master's in social work from Bryn Mawr and now works at a mental health and drug/alcohol rehabilitation program.
Jennifer Ramirez, 27, `08, also earned her master's and now is an insurance specialist for the Social Security Administration in Philadelphia.
She recently joined Gettysburg's alumni board of directors, along with Unique Patterson, `10, who works as a college admission counselor at Lebanon Valley College. Patterson said her work had opened her eyes to the vast differences in the quality of high schools across the nation and the challenges that inner-city students face.
"There are so many students out there with potential that can do so many great things on any campus they go on to," she said. "They just need that extra support."
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com