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Before College, 'Hartford Promise' Scholars Get Lesson On Asking For Help

Minutes into Tuesday’s mile-long scavenger hunt, the Hartford students began to sweat: in the laundry room of a college dormitory, where they were tasked with folding a few pieces of clothing, and then the campus gymnasium, where jump ropes and hula hoops awaited them.

By the time they climbed another set of stairs to get to the library at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, the “magic words” — the phrase these teenagers were coaxed into uttering — became easier to say.

“I need help,” the Hartford Promise scholars said on the second floor of the library, and later the writing center at CCSU’s Carroll Hall, and finally a professor’s office a short trek away. Each time, they earned a sticker in this higher-ed version of the “Amazing Race.”

Just days and weeks before they head off to college, these high-achieving graduates of the Hartford school system — the latest class of Hartford Promise city scholarship winners — gathered Tuesday to get to know each other and hear advice as they prepare to navigate the next chapter in their lives.

Scholarship organizers called it Hartford Promise Scholar Day, and along with the sandwiches and Q&A sessions was the chief message that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for assistance.

“One of things I learned is to put my pride aside and ask for help,” said Giovanni Jones, 18, who received a full scholarship from Trinity College, just minutes from his home in the city’s South End. In high school at Global Communications Academy, Jones said he was often reluctant to ask questions in class because he didn’t want others to think he was “dumb.”

“Now,” Jones said mid-day, “I’ll be a lot more confident heading into college.”

With Trinity already paying his college expenses, including room and board, Jones is one of the few students who met the residency and academic criteria for the Hartford Promise, but won’t need the program’s “last dollar” scholarship of up to $5,000 a year.

But for many of the 113 Promise winners in Hartford’s class of 2017, the second year of the citywide philanthropy fund, the award is a crucial steppingstone to higher education. The scholarship program, which has pledged $3.1 million to 257 Hartford Promise scholars since last year, is meant to help with tuition, books and other expenses not covered by federal Pell grants and financial aid packages. Citing internal data, Hartford Promise President Richard Sugarman said that most of the scholars come from low-income homes and that nearly two-thirds are among the first in their families to attend college.

Carlos Ortiz, 19, is one of them. “I have a little brother and I want him to look at me as a role model,” said Ortiz, a Bulkeley High School graduate who plans to start off at Manchester Community College. “I want the best for him, and so I want the best for me.”

When Tuesday rolled around, these soon-to-be college students still had a lot of questions. In one of the small group sessions, facilitated by sympathetic adults who had been through the college experience, students aired concerns about college debt, time management and juggling jobs with classes. Some of the students whose first language is not English were worried about college writing.

“You’re not alone — people are there to help you succeed,” said Daiana Lambrecht, a coalition lead organizer for the education reform group Achieve Hartford! Lambrecht, a native of Argentina, urged them to tap the writing centers at their colleges.

“Make as many friends as you can,” including workers in the financial aid office, said Alex P. Taylor, a program manager for CT Youth Forum. In college, “you kind of get a blank slate. It’s an opportunity for you to start off fresh.”

The Promise scholars shared tips on how to de-stress — drawing while listening to music, yoga, meditation — and heard from a string of supporters, such as Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, who told them that they earned their spot and to never forget that their city was proud of them. And soon enough, this message seeped in: Whether it’s four years at a university or time at community college, there comes a time when they will need help.

“We really want to be a resource for them,” said Taylor Dauphin, 23, a research and outreach associate for Hartford Promise. “It’s a four-year scholarship, so we want to build those relationships and give that support.”

Jadea Harris, 18, a fan of art, journaling and psychology, said she appreciated that foundation before she leaves for Clark University in Worcester, Mass., next week. She hails from Hartford’s Blue Hills neighborhood and was a top student at Great Path Academy, a city magnet school located at MCC in Manchester.

“They’re not only invested in how much money that we’ll need, but the actual support system,” Harris said after the scavenger hunt. “They’re worried about the actual journey, instead of just the destination.”

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