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New Effort Aims to Lift City’s Valedictorians

August 4, 2020
By Meghan E. Irons

New Effort Aims to Lift City’s Valedictorians

Warren Tolman couldn’t get the story of Michael Blackwood out of his mind.

Blackwood, a former valedictorian at The Engineering School in the Hyde Park Education Complex, received a full ride to Boston College in 2006. But part-way through that experience, his girlfriend got pregnant, and Blackwood decided to get a job and take classes part-time to take care of his child.

That decision cost him his full scholarship and led him on a major detour of his life. His years-long journey to make it, chronicled in the Globe’s award-winning Valedictorians Project in 2019, led Blackwood to the US Military and to Okinawa, Japan, where he was able to build a life for his family years after graduating from high school. Eventually, he got his college degree.

“This kid trying to do the right thing goes from a full academic scholarship to no scholarship,’' said Tolman.

Now Tolman, a former candidate for governor and attorney general, is launching a program inspired by the Globe series, in an effort to further support this year’s valedictorians as they prepare for college in the fall.

Tolman and two co-founders are kicking off The Valedictorian Project with an email to 36 valedictorians and a website declaring “Boston’s brightest deserve better.” They aim to raise a half million dollars for the initiative, he said. (The Globe is not involved in the effort. )

The program’s aim is to create a network of support by pairing valedictorians from each Boston high school with two mentors: a seasoned professional and younger person (a college senior or a recent graduate), to coach, hold workshops, and provide support throughout college and beyond.

Tolman reasoned that if someone had reached out to Blackwood, the valedictorian from Boston, he might not have gone through such an ordeal.

A student’s first year in college is already fraught with challenges: Many from low-income families, or who are the first in their families to enter college, encounter numerous cultural, academic and financial challenges. Often they drop out.

Now antiracism protests fill the streets and uncertainty looms over what college will look like this fall.

Mentors, advisors, and counselors are needed now more than ever to help students manage their time, complete coursework, and steer clear from taking on unnecessary debt, education experts say.

“Not having a student support center, not having a writing center, not having access to your professor in person is a really big deal for a lot of our first-generation college students,’' said Elsa Martinez-Pimentel, the regional director in Massachusetts for the nonprofit uAspire, which works with students from their senior high school on helping to prepare financially for college.

For mentoring to be effective, Martinez-Pimentel said, students need to have deep, personal connections with their mentors. uAspire begins working with students in their senior year of high school, connections that stick as they move through college.

Anthony Jack, a Harvard education professor, said students also have to overcome serious structural issues in their first year in college that often derail their learning. Those include managing the gap between what is in their financial aid packages and what it actually costs to be a college student. Many cannot afford dinner with their study groups, tickets to athletic events, or study abroad programs. And for many, a college dorm is their only home.

“We have been trying to program our way out of the problem, and you can’t program your way out of the problems that poverty brings,’' said Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”

Whenever possible, “structuring mentoring so that a young person continues a mentoring relationship with someone they knew in high school is really effective,‘' said Erin Souza-Rezendes, spokeswoman for MENTOR, a Boston-based organization that manages the volunteer mentoring opportunities nationwide.

“There is so much room for uncertainty and doubt for any young person in their first year of college ... so leaning on someone with whom you already have a relationship in this vulnerable moment can be powerfully supportive,’' she added.

Still, the need for more mentoring is great this year, as many people are beginning to seek ways to give back to students, particularly those who are Black and brown. MENTOR said it saw an 82 percent increase in the number of searches for mentors from May to June.

The Globe series chronicled the post-high school journeys of 93 of the 113 Boston public schools valedictorians whose pictures appeared from 2005 to 2007 in the newspaper’s annual “Faces of Excellence.”

The series, which also interviewed a sampling of suburban students, found that a quarter of the valedictorians did not finish college within six years. Forty percent still earned less than $50,000 a year and four have been homeless. The suburban graduates were about two and a half times as likely as the Boston students both to earn an advanced degree and earn more than $100,000 a year.

he project generated national and local attention and sparked the revival of the Year 13 Initiative, which is bringing aspiring college students to Wentworth Institute of Technology to get ready for their first year of college.

Tolman — the seventh of eight kids from a working class, Irish-American family that started in Boston Public Housing — said he “identified with a lot of these kids’ stories” in the Globe series.

But he had support, including from his older sisters who made sure he did his homework. He wants to create a program that offers that safety net.

“Academic success aside, many public high school valedictorians in Boston have struggled to meet their own definition of success post-graduation,‘' the co-founders wrote in a description of their valedictorian effort. “The data collected by The Boston Globe demonstrates that academic success is not enough in order to continue high levels of achievement.”

The city’s school system is partnering with the program, as it has with other initiatives such as Success Boston, a college completion initiative that coaches and supports Boston students.

“Boston is incredibly proud of its valedictorians, and the passion and hard work they have dedicated to their education,’' Mayor Martin J. Walsh said, praising the effort.

Marsha Inniss, the school system’s point person on the new project, said the district saw a need to support its highest achieving students after graduation. Valedictorians who participate in the new initiative can learn how to benefit from a supportive network and how to ask for help, said Inniss, the district’s director of postsecondary initiatives and partnerships.

“Whether our valedictorians are going to Bunker Hill or Yale, we know that our students need” help in figuring out how to “position themselves to achieve some successful outcomes,” said Inniss. “This opportunity is really providing them with a coach and a mentor for life.”

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