For 177 high school students who never thought they’d have the dream of college, Higher Edge has been a smooth path to realize that dream. Executive Director Chris Soto founded the New London-based organization seven years ago after studying a similar model in Providence, Rhode Island.
“When school budgets are cut, the guidance counselor is going to be the first person to go before a math teacher is cut,” says Soto. “Students from under-resourced schools deserve to go to college, the same as students whose parents might pay anywhere from ten to twenty thousand dollars for that guidance support.” The mission of Higher Edge is to provide that same high level of support to qualified students in the region.
Does it work? The proof is in the graduates.
Naseef McCray, a 2015 graduate of New London High School, currently attends Bentley University in Massachusetts. Talking about his Higher Edge experience, McCray says, “When I was in middle school, I participated in a program called ‘Boys to Men’ which taught us about professionalism, setting goals, and how to conduct ourselves in our everyday lives within the school system because we were getting into minor troubles a lot. I felt like having those mentors invest in me changed me and allowed me to become the man I am today. I’ve always wanted to be able to pay that forward.”
“Although I knew I had the mental capacity to go to college, I didn’t know how to go about finding the resources,” he says. “Higher Edge educated me and my father to analyze financial packages, what grants are, what loans mean and when they have to be paid back.”
McCray entered Bentley on full scholarships and set out to design a career path. His goal is to join a marketing firm, then at some point be in a place to start his own community center where he can teach inner city students about financial literacy and mental health.
“I want to focus on mental health because everyone tries to act like they have it all together, when a lot of us don’t,” says McCray. “I don’t even have it all figured out yet. Your body can be right, but if your brain isn’t in the right place, it doesn’t matter.”
Queenie Diaz, another New London High School graduate, now attends nursing school at University of Connecticut at Avery Point.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a nurse,” says Diaz. “I lived in the Dominican Republic with my grandma until I was six and, in her neighborhood, there were elderly people who had diabetes and had no money for medicines.” She shakes her head sadly. “They would walk around with trash bags on their feet to avoid getting infections and having their feet amputated.”
After returning to the United States to live, Diaz and her siblings were placed in separate foster homes, not the happiest childhood she could imagine.
“Higher Edge was a place that gave me some relief of stress. It wasn’t just about helping me with scholarships and essays, they also gave me time to talk to them about my problems at home.”
For Diaz, the experience was a real success; she had so many scholarships that her tuition at Avery Point and all her books were covered.
Diaz plans to apply to Storrs for the Allied Health program for 2019, and intends to go to graduate school. She smiles. “I’ve also thought about maybe opening a hospital in the Dominican Republic or starting an organization that travels to poor countries and gives out treatment to people who can’t afford it.” Diaz is the first in her family to graduate from high school and to attend college. She says, “Higher Edge was there to help with everything.”
Higher Edge is the first such organization in eastern Connecticut, with the main office in New London serving Science and Tech at NLHS, Grasso Tech in Groton, and sometimes Fitch; a satellite office in Willimantic serves Windham High School and Windham Tech. The organization consists of two programs: the College Access Program (CAP) for high school students who want to go to college, and the Success Program to support graduates who’ve entered college.
CAP program manager Mauro Diaz-Hernandez says he loves working with students. “They all have unique stories. You pass by these students every day on the street, or at the store, and would never know some of the things they’ve been through,” he says.
The College Access Program coordinates paperwork, counseling, and organization of trips for students to visit colleges. They also help students make educated financial choices. Other activities include essay-writing workshops, interview prep classes with subjects like wearing proper attire, or doing handshakes correctly.
Luisanna Cabrera, the Success Program director, outlines the facets of following up on students at college. “We make sure the students actually get through college,” she says. “We do one-on-one coaching and make sure the students are engaged on campus and connected with on-campus resources. We make sure all their facts are up to date if they are reapplying for scholarships.” She smiles. “We are the cheerleaders, rooting for them to get to the finish line of college completion.”
Higher Edge visits schools and talks about how the dream of college can be real. All their information is online and they welcome any student who wants to work toward a college in their future.
If there’s one message that Higher Edge wants to send, it’s to debunk the myth that students from under-resourced schools can’t succeed in college. They can, according to Soto, if they have the same resources and support as their peers from surrounding schools. When they are supported, they thrive. Higher Edge’s ultimate goal is to get as many students into college as possible and, so far, the success stories are good promotion.
35 Redden Avenue
New London, CT 06320