Initiative helps city students attend college

HENRIETTA — Adele Kates nearly dropped out of high school.

Her classroom at Wilson Magnet High School was so chaotic at times that she considered just giving up and entering the military, she explained.

"I was not really interested in pursuing college," Kates said. "I come from a poor family, so I didn’t think it’d be feasible in the first place. … And my teacher spent more time calming down the classroom to get a lesson going than she spent time teaching said lesson. It was too overwhelming. I felt (school) was such a waste of time. But I pushed through that and told myself, ‘I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it will be so worth it.’"

That light shone through for Kates and her family when she crossed the stage during her graduation ceremony May 23 from Rochester Institute of Technology. She is one of the first City Scholars graduates at RIT.

RIT President Bill Destler proposed the City Scholars initiative to provide more city students with the opportunity to attend college, said Victoria Romero, assistant director of community initiatives and Rochester City Scholars for the university’s Multicultural Center for Academic Success. Destler and his wife, Rebecca Johnson, provided the initial funding for the full-tuition scholarships when they were first announced in 2009, according to university officials.

Kates, 22, said that she learned about the scholarship in her senior year. Once she told her mother about it, she said that there was no way she couldn’t apply. She subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and became the first person in her family to graduate from college.

"I feel very accomplished," she said. "I’m glad my family pushed me to go to college and take advantage of this opportunity, which is really a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Kates was among the 27 students who enrolled in RIT through the City Scholars program in 2010, and 21 of them are on track to graduate, Romero said. Twelve graduated last month and others will graduate in December or are enrolled in five-year programs with students participating in cooperatives in their final year, she explained.

The university is proud of its 77-percent retention rate, Romero said. Some of the students who did not continue with the program transferred out or joined the military or were not ready for college, she said.

"A lot of our students are first generation (college attendees)," Romero added. "There is a fear of the unknown."

RIT also works to provide these students with support services to ensure their success, Romero added. That includes a bridge program to offer academic enrichment during the summer before a first-year student’s fall semester, peer mentoring for younger students and faculty mentors for upperclassmen, she said.

The university also encourages the City Scholars to go back to their high schools and talk to students about college life, she said. Prior to last month’s graduation, RIT had 83 students enrolled as City Scholars, she said.

The RIT scholarship has specific criteria that may factor in to the number of students receiving the scholarship, said Katie Mason, the city school district’s director of counselor services.. The criteria includes meeting the "regular admission" requirements set by the university, having attended a city high school for at least three years and having a family income maximum of $60,000, according to www.rit.edu/~w-mcas/rc_scholars.php.

"For the kids that qualify, it’s a wonderful program," Mason said.

The university is working to boost its outreach so as many students as possible are able to apply for the scholarship, Romero said.

School counselors promote the City Scholars program during classroom presentations, parent meetings, individual student advisement sessions and other events scheduled throughout the year. The district also provides regular visits to RIT for students to see what the campus has to offer, according to the superintendent’s office.  

The district’s guidance counselors begin informing students about scholarship opportunities as early as eighth grade, Mason noted. Those opportunities also include the University of Rochester’s Promise Scholarships as well as the Higher Education Opportunity Program available through most state universities, she added.

Randy McFadden said that the RIT scholarship helps put all students on an "even playing field" so they can decide if the university is a good fit rather than if they can afford it. He graduated from Wilson Magnet and received his RIT diploma in new media marketing last month.

"I would tell them (city students) to absolutely take advantage of this tremendous opportunity," McFadden said.

He worked a couple of summers to save enough money to help pay for his room and board so he could have the full college experience and live on campus, he added. Romero said that the university is working on providing financial assistance with housing; aid for books is available.

"I wouldn’t change anything if I did it over,"McFadden said of participating in the City Scholars program. "It’s been wonderful."

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