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the the A chance chance to to shine shine The first class of Torch Scholars has graduated, and they have blazed an impressive path. by Karen Feldscher

Photography by Mike Mazzanti and Mary Knox Merrill

t the podium, Nadia Alvarez is pure confidence. “The Torch program has given me the opportunity to explore the world, to learn from those around me—and the time to really focus on my personal, academic, and professional development,” the senior majoring in psychology tells her attentive audience. “Several times,” she continues, “I wanted to pinch myself to make sure this hasn’t all been a dream.” Hard to believe this is the same girl who lost her mother when she was eight. Whose family didn’t have nearly enough means to cover tuition at a major university like Northeastern. Today, the day before the 2011 commencement, Northeastern is hosting a luncheon to honor Alvarez and her fellow graduates from the university’s Torch Scholars Program, a five-year-old initiative that supports first-generation, low-income students who exhibit potential, albeit sometimes in nontraditional ways. The first group of Torch Scholars, which included Alvarez, enrolled at Northeastern in 2006. All made it to graduation. To date, a total of fifty-five “Torchies” have entered the university. Though they had faced sobering life challenges, each had the resilience and the can-do attitude that allowed them to create new opportunities for themselves. At the lunch, inside a festive tent on the Curry Student Center terrace, speakers—Torch Scholars Alvarez, Ana Hidalgo, and Michael Toney; President Aoun; and lead Torch donor Anthony Manganaro, E’67, H’08—talked about how the program shapes the lives of young people. Surprise guest LL Cool J, the rap star and actor, whose daughter is a Northeastern student, offered the soon-tobe grads a heartfelt tribute. “I know what it’s like,” he said, “to have a rough, hard, tough background where there’s some violence, some neglect, not always a lot of food. But never underestimate the value of your own personal life experience. “In actuality, it’s your greatest strength.”

A new way to recognize promise As Northeastern was raising its academic profile—and its costs—many alumni and administrators worried that the university was becoming a daunting reach for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. When Manganaro, chairman of the Siena Corporation, a Maryland-based real-estate development company,

24 Northeastern Magazine Fall 2011

expressed his desire for Northeastern to maintain its traditional commitment to low-income first-generation students, the seeds of the Torch program were sown. Manganaro envisioned the program as a way to help Northeastern stay connected to students who may not have the best grades or test scores, but are “go-getters”— students like he was. Other alumni felt the same way. “The Torch program really resonated with me,” says supporter Ted English, BA’76, CEO of Bob’s Discount Furniture and former CEO of the TJX Companies. “It brought me back to my roots. When I attended Northeastern, it was a bluecollar school. Most students worked when they weren’t

“I know what it’s like to have a tough background,” rapper/actor/NU dad LL Cool J told the graduating scholars. “But never under­estimate the value of your own personal life experience. In actuality, it’s your greatest strength.” in class. I felt the Torch program kept that spirit of openness and inclusion, as we continue to develop as a world-class university.” At the pre-graduation lunch, Torch Scholar Toney spoke of how important this inclusiveness can be. “As a high-school senior,” he said, “my numbers would have told you I shouldn’t be here today. But what they wouldn’t have shown you were all the battles I had to go through on a day-to-day basis—like taking care of my siblings, putting food on the table, and making sure my family had what they needed. They were ultimately my standardized tests, my GPA.” Northeastern designed Torch to be markedly different from its other scholarship and opportunity programs (see sidebar, page 29). After researching the best predictors of academic success, Philomena Mantella, senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, and her colleagues chose a handful of noncognitive traits that would serve as Torch admissions criteria—traits like openness to new ideas, conscientiousness, agreeableness, resoluteness. As part of the Torch selection process, Northeastern officials give students a personality inventory and also observe them in a mock classroom situation. The process is rigorous and time-consuming. Many Northeastern alumni, staff, and faculty devote a lot of time and effort to making the process work.

Fall 2011 Northeastern Magazine 25


“I have a job lined up, my family’s very proud—and it’s a very exciting moment for the Torch program.”

“The Torch program gives kids who are going against the odds a chance to reach their potential.”

— Odalis Polanco

— Besa Beja

Casting a wide admissions net “is an issue that, on a national level, people really worry about,” Mantella explains. “SAT scores are often tied to income levels. There are more and more first-generation students, and urban schools aren’t providing an equal footing for students to start college.” No one knew if Torch could be successful. Back in 2006, there was little hard data on whether noncognitive traits could, in fact, accurately predict academic success. But many urged Northeastern to give the program a try. “Alumni would always tell me not to leave kids like they were behind,” says Mantella. “They thought it was important to seek students with resilience, who had a laser focus around education as a means to an end. “So that’s who we sought to find.”

“Hitting the ball out of the park” “My Northeastern experience was awesome, fun, enlightening, amazing.” — Ana Hidalgo

“If a program like Torch can look at me and truly believe in my potential, then I should be able to do the same for people coming after me.” — Michael Toney

“My Northeastern experience led me to study international comparative politics. Now I want to dedicate my life to the service of others.” — Ulysses Ifill

26 Northeastern Magazine Fall 2011

“The support was so strong. When I was struggling in math, I got help from a tutor. I ended up with one of the highest grades in the class.” — Joseph Bordieri

The achievements of Torch’s first graduating class make it clear the program is choosing well. Toney, for instance—a graphic-design major—began a clothing company out of his dorm room, and now hires Northeastern co-op students himself. International-business major Odalis Polanco did co-ops and studied in Mexico, and founded a student global humanitarian organization called DRYVE. Behavioral-neuroscience major Melanie Araujo, who graduated in just three and a half years, works as a neuro­physiologist for a marketing-research company, a position that’s taken her all over the world. These outcomes are like “hitting the ball out of the park,” says Mantella. Now she and Torch program director Jana McCarthy are telling their peers about the Torch program— which, overall, boasts a 90 percent retention rate. McCarthy has been making the rounds at national conferences. She says, “The response we’re getting from practitioners in the field is incredible, and indicates an urgency for us to expand the model [by helping other schools replicate it].” Roughly one-quarter of Northeastern’s Torch Scholars are currently fully supported by endowed funds, officials say. The university intends to keep building this base, to strengthen the already deep well of resources. Financial backing is critical because the Torch program is so labor-intensive. It relies on one-on-one mentoring and a pre–freshman year summer immersion program (designed to prepare the scholars for college life), as well as outcomes monitoring and, of course, continuous fine-tuning.

An ingrained work ethic The Torch Scholars arrive on campus primed for success, in large part because of the sheer amount of work they had to do as teens. Hidalgo waitressed at a Friendly’s restaurant to help support her disabled mother, then stayed up late into the night to get her high-school classwork done. Toney, who grew up in a single-parent home, helped raise three younger siblings. At times, the college transition proved bumpy. Many felt torn between attending to their schoolwork and continuing to provide support at home. Early in his freshman year, Toney kept on trying to help his family, like he always had. “But it was hard when I was in school,” he says. “I had to work at getting my priorities more in focus.” Homesickness caused Alvarez’s grades to fall her freshman year. “I’m not used to failing,” she says. “And it wasn’t in me to ask for help. But my advisor realized something was wrong and got me in touch with tutors.” She also had a solid friend in Torchie Joseph Bordieri—who is now her fiancé. She remembers, “Joe said, ‘Nadia, I know you can do it. You know you can do it. So just do it!’”

“My numbers would have told you I shouldn’t be here today,” said Toney. “But they wouldn’t have shown you all my day-to-day battles— like taking care of my siblings, putting food on the table. They were ultimately my standardized tests, my GPA.” Without the circle of support provided by the program, Polanco says, “I don’t think I would have made it.” “This program gives kids who are going against the odds a chance to reach their potential,” says Torch Scholar Besa Beja, a business major who studied in Tokyo and Rome. One of her co-op jobs led to a post-graduation position in California selling medical devices for Johnson & Johnson. When she was thirteen, Beja’s parents moved from Albania to the United States to escape a difficult political climate, trading solid middle-class careers for a series of odd jobs. Beja clerked at a pharmacy to help out financially. But the Torch program, she says, gave her some muchneeded breathing room, including the chance “to have great friends, great mentoring relationships, and great

Fall 2011 Northeastern Magazine 27


Seeking and supporting potential

opportunities for responsibility on co-op jobs, without having to worry about the financial burden.”

“Joe [Bordieri] and I will be attending graduate school in the same program, to earn master’s degrees in social work.”

beckoning futures Now the first class of Torch Scholars leaves Northeastern, big plans in place. After an August wedding, Bordieri and Alvarez will work toward master’s degrees in social work at Boston College. Ulysses Ifill, a political-science major who traveled and studied internationally, wants to earn an MBA and work in international development. First, he’ll do a service year in City Year’s New York City corps. Music-industry major Jordan Munson works for his longtime co-op employer, OurStage, a music-discovery website. Hidalgo is busy with a new husband, a one-year-old son, and a real-estate job. She hopes to begin a master’s in counseling psychology soon, to work with children and families. Polanco has an accounting job at technical-software developer MathWorks in Natick, Massachusetts—and he continues to build DRYVE. These young people have spent most of their lives moving beyond their comfort zone. They’ve tried new things. They roll with the punches. “That’s what’s special about Torch Scholars,” says Beja. “They’ve all had their own struggles, but they use them as an opportunity to go above that and make something of themselves.” “I don’t think any of us are satisfied with less than the best,” says Alvarez. “We want to make sure we have a big impact on the world.”

— Nadia Alvarez

“I couldn’t possibly be more lucky. With Torch, the stars just aligned.” — Jordan Munson

Karen Feldscher is a senior writer.

“I came to this country barely knowing any English. Today, after three really cool civil-engineering co-ops, I’m going to have a great career.” — Qin Rui Pang

“Torch allowed me to focus on what was really important—learning.” — Melanie Araujo

Northeastern offers students a wide variety of opportunity programs.

I

n addition to the Torch Scholars Program, Northeastern offers a suite of other opportunity programs that help students who face economic and social barriers pursue a higher education. Each underscores the university’s long-standing commitment to investing in potential. Like Torch, some of the programs offer one-on-one attention and life-skills mentoring that give students a chance to compete at a high level in the college classroom and the workplace. Others pair Northeastern student mentors with Boston public high-school students.

urban partner Northeastern gives hundreds of scholarships to deserving Bostonarea students. The university’s Foundation Year program offers first-year college students from Boston a no-cost, comprehensive one-year program that includes rigorous academics (along with an emphasis on peer-topeer learning), career exploration, and extensive support services. Since 1984, Boston Housing Authority (BHA) Scholarships have provided more than 250 BHA residents with a tuition-free Northeastern education. Recipients must maintain a required GPA and perform a hundred hours of community service during their college years. Boston public high-school students in the top 10 percent of their class may qualify for Boston Public High School Scholarships, which offer free tuition and free room and board at Northeastern.

the students of tomorrow In addition to giving financial support, Northeastern maintains a host of programs that help Boston-area

28 Northeastern Magazine Fall 2011

students prepare for, apply for, and stay motivated for college. Every summer, the Balfour Academy offers high-school students English and math SAT prep, the opportunity to sit in on Northeastern classes, and recreational and cultural activities. During the school year, it provides afterschool tutoring. The Bridge to Calculus at John D. O’Bryant High School, a six-week summer program taught by high-school teachers and Northeastern faculty and coordinated by the university, prepares rising high-school seniors for AP calculus courses. Introduced last year, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program pairs Northeastern student tutors with Boston public high-school students interested in completing the lengthy Gates Millennium Scholars application. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the scholarships give aid to college and graduateschool students from diverse backgrounds, covering their unmet financial need. The LEAD (Linking Education and Diversity) program supports Boston public high-school students and students helped by the Massachusetts

Metropolitan Council for Educa­ tional Opportunity program during the college admission process— helping them fill out applications and apply for financial aid—then guides them during their college freshman year. Northeastern students act as LEAD mentors. MathPOWER aims to create more effective ways to teach math to urban children, thereby shrinking the achievement gap between low-income students and their more privileged counterparts. The Ujima Scholars Program, offered through the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, is a freshman-year program that provides rigorous academic instruction, plus academic, personal, and career counseling; workshops; community-service and leadershipdevelopment opportunities; cultural connections; and need-based grants. The Youth Development Initiative Program provides academic assistance to at-risk middle- and high-school students from housing developments in communities surrounding Northeastern. It also provides counseling and life-skills assistance to the students and their parents.

Northeastern sophomore Megan Fernandes tutors a student in the Youth Development Initiative Program.

Fall 2011 Northeastern Magazine 29

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