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From the Inner City to the Elite

From the Inner City to the Elite

Vassar’s Exploring Transfer program offers community college students five weeks to a brighter future.

By Ann Farmer

When Maribel Perez arrived at the tree-laden campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in June, she was quickly entranced by the 100-year-old library, a towering Gothic structure with majestic turrets, crystal chandeliers and stained glass windows. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is so beautiful. I feel like I’m in a movie,’” recalls Perez.

But this was no celluloid fantasy. It was her first day of an intensive  summer program called Exploring Transfer that Vassar offers to a select group of community college students from around the country. Exploring Transfer, which recently completed its 21st summer season, is hailed as an affirmative-action program that provides a much-needed educational boost to its diverse, low-income participants.

Perez, 23, the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants, is typical of the program’s participants. She exhibits far greater potential than she has had the opportunity to develop. “I didn’t think much of my abilities,” says Perez, who attended an overcrowded New York City high school where she often shared textbooks with other students. She recently completed her first year toward an associate degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College. “My goal was just to get a decent job,” Perez says.

Days after returning from Vassar, she says her outlook has changed radically. “Now I realize that there are so many other things that I can do,” Perez says. “I want to be the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree.”

“Maribel was someone intensely aware of the important opportunity she was getting,” says Dr. Andrew Bush, the Vassar faculty director of Exploring Transfer (ET) and its companion program, Exploring Research (ER), and professor of Hispanic studies. While the ET coursework focuses on the humanities and social sciences, ER explores the natural sciences, teaching forensic chemistry or sending students out to archeological digs, as it did this past summer. Both programs run for the same five-week period, during which the 45 or so students live on-campus and are showered with a healthy mix of support, challenge and freedom.

“We hope they take a sense of the richness and joy of intellectual life,” says Bush, explaining that the aim of the fully funded program is not to choose students with the highest grade-point average, but to pick those who’ve perhaps experienced an unsuccessful first semester at community college or possibly even dropped out but returned. At the same time, “We like to see evidence of determination and real potential,” says Bush, adding that the students they look for usually come from families where no one has yet received a baccalaureate degree, students who may not even consider themselves viable candidates for such a program at this elite institution.

Sean Williams, for instance, was in his first year at BMCC when his English 201 professor tapped him to apply to the Vassar program. “He asked if I was interested in writing,” says Williams, 19, who lives in a single-parent household in Brooklyn. “I said, ‘No, I’m not that good at writing,’” recalls Williams, who was taken aback when his teacher told him that he exhibited talent.

Accepted to the ET program last summer, it was his first time away from home for such a long stretch. Williams says he never felt so insulated from the concerns of daily life. “I didn’t feel like I knew what was going on outside Vassar while I was there. It creates a bubble feeling that you’re protected from everything and that everything is taken care of,” says Williams, laughing at how it struck him as odd, at first, when total strangers on campus would say hello to him in passing.

Normally college commuters, Williams and the other community college participants tend to have a more superficial relationship with their school campuses, as they race from class to work to home, often fighting exhaustion all the way. “I was very tired,” says Perez, describing her first year at BMCC, when she would attend back-to-back classes for three days. On the four remaining weekdays, she worked eight-hour shifts at a cafeteria, returning home after midnight to tackle her homework.

At Vassar, on the other hand, she made studying her primary focus, taking full advantage of the campus library that she’d so instantly delighted in, often reading on its couches until closing time. “It was like a dream,” she says.

Generally, the biggest student feeders to the Vassar program are community colleges in the New York City metropolitan area, including BMCC and LaGuardia Community College. This summer, students were also accepted from colleges as far away as Maine, New Mexico and Los Angeles. The ethnic makeup of the group often approximates one-third

African-American, one-third Asian or Hispanic American, and one-third working-class White. Course credit is applied to students’ associate degrees whenever possible.

Receiving free tuition, plus room and board, the group resides in a campus dormitory where they readily bond over the rigors of the program, often chatting late into the night about thoughts and ideas provoked in classes earlier in the day. It’s not uncommon for students to undergo major changes during the five weeks, ranging from improved studying and writing techniques to a greater sense of confidence in their future.

Williams, for instance, expressed a bit of chutzpah after returning home, saying, “I can really kick butt. I feel so prepared from doing so much work in such a short time that I feel like it’ll be a breeze back at BMCC.”
Besides developing a better sense of story structure, he says, “I learned how to say what I want in 20 words rather than 60 words. There are a lot of things I didn’t look for before that I do now.”

Perhaps even more important, Williams began more readily expressing his point of view about things. “Sean was someone who entered the program on the reserved side,” says Bush, explaining how the professors make a tremendous effort to draw out students’ ideas and opinions by creating classroom exchanges that are lively, entertaining and embracing of different views. “By the end, he was much more in the thick of class discussions,” Bush says.

A pair of professors teaches each class of approximately 22 students. One professor is from Vassar and the other is from one of the participating colleges. This ratio allows more personal attention than students normally get. “The professors are so into it,” says Tishima Moore, 21, who lives in Queens, N.Y., and attends BMCC. She had no trouble jumping into the class discussions. “We got to voice our opinions on anything, even if it was off the subject,” she says. However, when she got her first essay back, a critique on the epic poem, “The Odyssey,” Moore was disappointed when her professor remarked that she needed to go more in depth with her analysis.

Together, they went to the library to analyze a photograph by Dorothy Lange of a depression-era woman and her children. “He said, ‘Ask yourself what does this mean,’” recalls Moore, who was encouraged to start at one point and work her way around the photograph until she arrived at an analysis. “That blew me away,” says Moore, “I never thought a professor would go into a library and sit with you.”

One of the goals of the program is to encourage students to continue to a four-year college after completing their associate degree. Bill Roane, an instructor at BMCC and a member of the selection committee, says he’s seen many students come back from Vassar saying they’ve been utterly transformed. “Some are rethinking their entire lives,” he says.

Bush estimates that of the 800 to 900 community college students

who’ve attended the Vassar program, more than 90 percent have gone on to four-year colleges. Approximately 100 of them have attended Vassar. He adds, “Their success at Vassar has been phenomenal,” citing a tendency for them to achieve high grade-point averages and assume student leadership roles. 

Williams says that before attending the program, he didn’t harbor any clear-cut career goals beyond a general dream of being rich. His experience last summer helped him realize that solid writing skills can translate into any number of career choices. “There [are] a lot of people here that are just getting by,” he says of his Brooklyn neighborhood, where men his age are often hanging out on street corners. After attending the Vassar program, he’s come to realize that, “If given the opportunity, you can be someone other than what society has made [you],” he says.

Gearing up for her last semester at BMCC, Moore says she’s definitely headed to a four-year college. And she’s taking some parting advice from her Vassar professors with her. “They said, ‘Do something you enjoy,’” recalls Moore. ‘Be interested in your profession. Do something you really want to do, not just something for the money.’” She says, “It gave me a sense of, don’t stick with what you know, but open your eyes to bigger horizons.”

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