As HPAC continues to celebrate the success of our rising college freshmen, I continue to reflect on the road they took to get here. The HPAC Scholars’ impressive list of colleges, scholarships, and financial aid packages are not the result of work beginning last September, but rather years of focus, determination, hard work, sacrifice, and a willingness to accept challenge. When you look at their college acceptance list as a whole, it is easy to fall into the trap of defining these students by a college name or a scholarship amount. Each and every scholar is a lot more than that. Each scholar is defined by their own story; their own journey to get to where they are today.
One young Dreamer started worrying about her pathway to college when she was in the 5th grade. What college would accept her? How would she pay? Another 5th grader asked about what it takes to be the best in school, to go to Harvard or Yale? Struggling against a learning difference that made school really hard, another student found her voice in writing and art. A quiet, withdrawn student in middle school, she became animated and engaged during afterschool programming. Yet another struggled as he moved from shelter to shelter, uncertain of where he would lay his head each night. Each and every scholar had a story; all of them unique. How did they all start in very different places, yet achieve the same goal 6-7 years later?
Reviewing a copy of the Common Application that most colleges accept at the HPAC 9th grade orientation will silence even the most vocal of students. Inevitably a 9th grader will raise a hand and ask me,
“Why are we looking at this now, we are only high school freshmen?”
My response is always the same:
“You are starting the college application process the first time you set your freshman foot down on your first day of high school!”
Blank stares all around! By the end of the orientation, they get the message: HARD WORK AND NO FREE TIME.
We try very hard at HPAC to respect each scholar’s story. And that is never more important than when our Scholars begin their high school careers. Students are encouraged to be engaged, but to pursue what they love or have interest in. One of our scholars worked at a science camp starting as an 8thth grader. She eventually took summer courses in engineering. A budding chef with a keen interest in food read about farm to table cooking and interned at a local cooking program for 2 years. While scholars are actively engaged in clubs, activities and sports, they are also holding down jobs, taking the most challenging courses they can, and maintaining great grades. When a scholar meets with me, and says, “I have so little free time,” I know they are well on their way down this college path.
When I reflect on each individual college-bound scholar, I do so fondly. They are relieved and happy and excited as they prepare for college three months from now. Yet, as I reflect on their joy and accomplishments, I remember the struggles, the tears, the heartache, and sometimes fear and pain that were also a part of their stories. When I remember them in those sometimes fragile, heart-breaking moments, I am most proud of them.
That 5th grade Dreamer will attend a top university on a full scholarship. The budding academic, who had Harvard in her sights, will do the same. A Creative Writing major and a Graphic Design minor is on the mind of the student who struggled academically. And for the child who worried where he would next lay his head to sleep, he will now do so in a wonderful, safe, nurturing 4 year college that is so amazingly lucky to have him.
Judithann Thayer has been the Education Counselor at HPAC since 2009, working with students transitioning from 5th grade to middle school, eighth graders navigating high school choices and focused on preparing each scholar for the college application process. Before joining HPAC she was a teacher and counselor at the St. Ignatius Middle School in Hunts Point. She also taught English in Italy and lived in the Middle East.