How a Mass. nonprofit helps ready students of color for top colleges

On a sweltering summer day, a group of high school students in the Thrive Scholars program are, pretty cheerfully, hard at work inside Amherst College’s Science Center.

During a three-hour writing seminar, some read aloud from a collection of essays by James Baldwin, along with some of their own writing. There’s a sense of camaraderie in the air, along with the natural excitement of 17-year-olds away from home.

These Scholars are rising seniors in high school, and have been admitted into the program based on academic excellence — the group averages an A-minus GPA — and their backgrounds: they’re all first-generation college applicants or students of color, and most are both.

Thrive Scholars is a college preparatory program founded 20 years ago with the goal of helping students of color from low-income households — defined as those earning $75,000 or less a year — win seats at the nation’s top colleges. But the mission extends beyond that: it helps see participants through graduation with career counseling and other support.

The sense of urgency has only grown following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 29 that restricted the use of race in college admissions. Many expect that ruling to translate into a rollback in student diversity on college campuses. Meanwhile, recent research shows that selective-school admissions tend to favor the wealthy.

“The data shows that these colleges are pipelines to leadership in the country. Whether you think it should be or not, they are,” said Thrive CEO Steve Stein. “If we want leadership in this country to be diverse, we need to find a way to bring diversity to higher ed.”

In the world after the court’s decision, “it is going to be much harder,” Stein added.

The program has been growing of late. A few years ago, Thrive Scholars enrolled around 100 new students each year from across the U.S.; this summer, there are nearly 240 students on Amherst’s campus, and 912 total participants across the six-year program.

And it produces results. Forty percent of Scholars go on to attend one of the nation’s 12 most selective schools — including the Ivy League, MIT, Duke, and others — and 90% enroll at one of the top 50.

Now, in the wake of the court’s decision, the group wants to take another leap forward.

Stein said the program plans to open 10 additional summer academies across the country in the next five years.

“There are tens of thousands of students out there who meet the qualifications to go to an organization like ours, [and] who meet the qualifications to go to a top college in this country,” he said.

Filling A Gap

The tuition-free, six-year program begins with a summer academy for rising high school seniors at Amherst College. The following summer, there’s a second academy, hosted by the University of Chicago.

The program continues to provide counseling and other supports throughout college and into the first year of students’ post-graduation careers.

During the first summer academy, students study three hours of advanced math in addition to three hours of writing each day. Meanwhile, they also get access to small college fairs and informational sessions on the college application process, from selecting schools to filling out financial aid forms. The idea is to offer academic coursework and college-prep resources that might not be otherwise available.

A 2022 report by the group Just Equations found that only 19% of American students take calculus in high school — even though it appears to offer an admissions advantage at selective schools.

“Students like ours, just by virtue of where they grew up, are often attending schools that don’t have the same resources as some of their suburban or private-school peers,” said Daniel Navisky, Thrive’s executive director for Greater Boston.

Stephen Shane, an instructor at the Summer Academy, shares a writing exercise with students. (WBUR/Max Larkin)

During the academic year, Stephen Shane is a writing instructor at Emerson College. But for the past nine summers, he’s come to Amherst to teach college-level writing to Thrive students.

Shane fosters college-level, seminar-style discussion, and tries “to design a class that demystifies what kinds of writing and research and academic expectations take place in college,” he said.

He also helps students think through their college application personal statement — writings that now feel especially fraught.

Shane says this year’s academy was just getting underway as the Supreme Court issued its decision in late June banning the consideration of race in college admissions.

He and his students discussed the explicit loophole that students remain free to write about how their racial identity has shaped their lives as individuals. Rather than feeling liberated, Shane’s students at the academy felt constrained.

“‘Does this mean I have to talk about my identity, now, in the essay? What if I don’t want to talk about my race, necessarily, here?’ ” Shane recalled them asking. “It’s kind of taking away choices that students have in terms of talking about themselves.”

The task of writing a standout personal statement was already difficult.

Matthew Kim, a Korean American student from New York, has been playing the piano since around age 4. He wants to write about that part of his life, but he worries that “it sounds pretty generic. I’m trying to think of a creative way to articulate, like, how I feel about it … It’s gonna be a challenge.”

Thrive Scholars Michael Zapata, of Los Angeles, and Matthew Kim (right), of New York, work on their personal statements. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Thrive Scholars Michael Zapata, of Los Angeles, and Matthew Kim (right), of New York, work on their personal statements. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

According to a Boston Globe report, some schools have already decided to include new essay prompts on their applications, leaving room for students to discuss their cultures, backgrounds and family experiences.

On Aug. 14, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on what is permissible after the Court’s decision.

The letter asks colleges and universities to consider, among other things, “redoubling efforts to recruit and retain talented students from underserved communities,” and stepping up financial aid.

Fitting In

For many Scholars, “Summer Academy” is their first taste of life on a college campus. And despite the heavy workload, many are enjoying it.

Hannah Adeleye calls the academy “such a welcoming and tight-knit community of people of the same backgrounds [and] mindsets.” The mood is collaborative, not competitive.

Adeleye, who is Black, plans to attend Columbia University. But she worries that some of her self-confidence might melt away when back at the majority-white Norwood High School.

“I just fear that … I might fall back into that, ‘Ooh, like, I don’t know if I’m good enough to get into these places,’” Adeleye said.

Staff at Thrive increasingly see the Summer Academy community as the program’s beating heart.

“There’s a lot of organizations that do college advising, a lot of organizations do mentorship and [help with] social-emotional belonging,” said Stein, Thrive’s CEO. “Summer Academy is what makes us unique.”

From left, Hannah Adeleye, Joshua Rodriguez Ortiz, Jimmy Merino and Farhiyo Omar — Thrive Scholars from Greater Boston — inside Amherst College's Science Center. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
From left, Hannah Adeleye, Joshua Rodriguez Ortiz, Jimmy Merino and Farhiyo Omar — Thrive Scholars from Greater Boston — inside Amherst College’s Science Center. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Joshua Rodriguez Ortiz, who attends Billerica High School, wants to attend Harvard College, and go on to a career in law or forensic psychology.

As a rising senior, Ortiz is part of several groups for top academic performers and youth leaders.

His family is from Honduras. Since both of his parents have passed away, he lives with his sister, who is his legal guardian, in Billerica.

“I’m just really happy being here” in Amherst this summer, Ortiz said. “I have the opportunity to pursue what [my family] never could.”

Shane, the writing instructor, says it’s the Scholars that have brought him back to this program for nearly a decade. He calls his students “some of the most motivated and engaged and thoughtful and compassionate students I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”

Ortiz is a case in point.

“I have no pressure coming from anyone to succeed. I kind of just want to be the best for myself. Because the statistics say I shouldn’t be here at all,” he said.

Harvard, Ortiz says, is just the next step in his dream. Eventually, he hopes to make his own way to the Supreme Court — as a justice.

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