Three years ago, the idea of attending an elite private school seemed far-fetched to Nafarrah Ramsay and Mariela Vazquez — a seen-on-TV fantasy, they thought, unless your family is rich.
But the girls, then sixth-graders in Hartford public schools, were on the cusp of a life-changing opportunity.
“I live in a state that’s one of the boarding school capitals of the country, and I live 20 minutes away from a lot of them,” Nafarrah said. “It’s just, like, I didn’t even know I could step foot on the campus.”
This fall, Nafarrah is not only a new girl on campus — she is president of her freshman class at the exclusive Ethel Walker School in Simsbury. And her best friend Mariela, whom she met the summer after sixth grade in Hartford Youth Scholars’ Steppingstone Academy, is now a ninth-grader on full scholarship at Miss Porter’s in Farmington.
Mariela, too, ran for class president at the prestigious prep school and won.
The dual victory is another notch in the legacy of Hartford Youth Scholars, the rigorous college-prep program that has steered promising students down the path of higher education for a decade. Many of the students, recruited in middle school, have been admitted into selective high schools, and last year the first cohort of scholars began graduating from college.
But two presidents in a prep-school freshman class is a first for the academy as it works on developing leaders. Two other Hartford Youth Scholars were also elected class presidents in recent months: Timothy Bell, a junior at Suffield Academy, and Natiel Cooper, a senior at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford.
For Nafarrah and Mariela, leadership was steeped in their third and last summer at Steppingstone, a donation- and ambition-fueled academy on the Trinity College campus where middle-schoolers give up sleeping in for studying. The curriculum includes reading the classics, solving algebraic equations, practicing table manners and learning how to steel themselves if a prep-school classmate flings a racially-tinged remark.
Both girls were among a crew of Academy Ambassadors this past summer, a new role meant to foster leaders who are unafraid to speak their minds on sensitive topics. Nafarrah and Mariela helped lead student discussions on hot-button subjects ripped from the headlines.
“They are good students,” said Garth Adams, the program dean for Hartford Youth Scholars. “More importantly, they are just good people.”
Those closest to the girls say they are not surprised by their latest accomplishment. As an eighth-grader, Mariela was president of the student council at Breakthrough Magnet School in southwest Hartford, where her mother is a Spanish teacher and the mindfulness coach, Maritza Soto-Gomez, has known Mariela since she was 3, a preschooler brimming with emotional intelligence and a deep well of empathy.
When Soto-Gomez learned that her pupil had been elected class president at Miss Porter’s School, she said she thought, “We have another person in this world that is going to make a difference.”
Nafarrah’s mom, Quanne Strachan, said her daughter had been reading at a ninth-grade level since she was a third-grader at Rawson School in north Hartford, but that she had always shone brightly. While Strachan was in nursing school, she would hear her 2-year-old repeat medical language such as “scapula” and “my heart is engaged in my chest.”
But getting here — from Hartford public education to the leafy, insular worlds of premier private schools — meant sacrificing summers, Saturday mornings and weekday nights when they had double the homework from their city schools and Hartford Youth Scholars, the girls said. It involved a transformation in what they thought was possible, from assuming private school wasn’t an option to crying tears of joy when they each received the elaborate acceptance notices from their top choices on March 10.
Then, after arriving on the all-girl campuses and interacting with some of most privileged teenagers on Earth, believing they could compete with the best.
“I kind of did it without a thought,” Mariela recalled the other day. “ ‘OK, class president. I’ll sign up for that.’ There wasn’t so much doubt in my mind that I couldn’t do that.”
Confidence & Pressure
Campaigning was limited to speeches in front of their respective freshman classes, just weeks into the school year. Mariela remembered the leadership lessons ingrained in her as an academy ambassador — being in power isn’t about the authority, but being in a position to help one’s community. Nafarrah talked about collaboration and celebrating each other’s differences.
After the voting, the girls said they were swarmed by well-wishers, including competitors. Even before her election, Mariela said some girls told her they were dropping out of the race in support of her candidacy.
“That inspired some confidence in me, but it also placed a lot of pressure, because I don’t really know you but you believe in me,” Mariela, a boarding student, said on a recent afternoon on Miss Porter’s picturesque campus, lounging in a deck chair overlooking the Farmington River. “That was a foreign feeling.”
Her new Pleasantville-like environment, where classmates feel so safe they leave their pricey personal electronics unattended, has been its own adjustment, Mariela said. “It’s also a shocker because I'm used to performing well, but that means different things in different places. So my A-pluses in Hartford are Bs over here.”
Nafarrah, a day student who now lives in Bloomfield, said it was jarring when she did not get into Ethel Walker’s honors classes right away. She is already hard on herself academically, plus there are life stresses. Her mother has been out of work on medical leave, and Nafarrah’s father, who owns a small trucking company, has been laid up as he battles kidney cancer, the family said. The school covers nearly all of Nafarrah’s tuition, but her parents still pay about $500 a month.
“I have more to lose than everyone else, because I’m not rich,” Nafarrah said. At her school, "you have to be either smart or really rich. … Even though you have to maintain a C average, my goal is just to maintain an A. So I feel bad if my grade drops to a B. I try to stay on my toes so I can make sure they know that they made a good choice by letting me come here.”
It helps that Mariela and Nafarrah are best friends on this journey. They swap stories about their experiences, and the microaggressions that Hartford Youth Scholars prepared them for but still sting. Like the time when a classmate dismissed Hartford as useless and “I was like, ‘That’s my hometown,’ ” Mariela recounted. Or when Nafarrah wore her hair naturally, in an Afro, and one of her new friends said Nafarrah would be her bodyguard at a school social.
Nafarrah was confused. She remembers the friend saying, “Oh, because you look aggressive.”
When Mariela thinks of the future, professional ballroom dancing comes to mind. Or maybe practicing law. Along with being class president and playing sports, she also joined Miss Porter’s mock trial team.
“We say to her, ‘Go for it, girl,’ ” said Mariela’s mother, Miriam Vazquez. “Dancers need lawyers, too.”
Nafarrah isn’t sure what she wants to do as a grown-up, but felt that becoming president “was starting the trend for me to do big things,” she said, a smile dawning. “This is just the beginning.”
The girls, after all, are only 14 years old.