More than 2.5 million of America’s children will be homeless this Christmas – a number equivalent to the population of Chicago.
Given the health, safety, security and emotional challenges they face every day, few of those children will finish high school, much less go on to earn a college degree.
But Dominique – a 14-year-old eighth-grader living with her mother in a New York City homeless shelter – is determined to beat those odds.
And she won’t have to do it alone.
Thanks to the “Today” show’sWillie Geist and the generosity of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., Dominique is going to receive the opportunity, support and financial aid she needs to become a college grad.
Geist met the eighth-grader during a “Today” show segment on homelessness, during which she spoke eloquently about her aspirations to attend college. He reached out to a New York marketing firm to see if employees there could help identify corporate and educational sponsors to support the shelter; one staff member, Paula Goldenberg, is a 2014 graduate of Stephens, and she decided that her alma mater was the ideal environment for a student of Dominique’s background, academic strengths and life challenges.
Stephens President Dianne Lynch agreed.
“For 180 years, it’s been Stephens’ mission to provide the kinds of opportunities to women that truly transform their lives,” she said. “As a women’s college, we offer our students a unique level of attention and support; we know them, we understand their particular needs and challenges, and we are here to assist them every step of the way.”
Dr. Leslie Willey, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Stephens, was present Thursday morning when the “Today” show revealed improvements to the shelter and a variety of other surprises for the children who live there. Stephens’ offer of a scholarship for Dominique was among those surprises.
“We know you have hopes and dreams, and we want to help you with that,” Willey said on the show. “We know you’re going to be a great Stephens Woman.”
Like every student, Dominique will need to meet the college’s admission standards, a goal she is determined to achieve. Once she has been accepted, Stephens will provide her a full four-year scholarship, including room and board. But because the college understands that Dominique may not have the resources she needs to make the transition to college, Stephens also has committed to providing support for her travel from New York to Columbia for summer and holiday breaks; the amenities – from a computer and a television, to a mini-fridge and cozy bedding – that are standard equipment in the college’s dormitories; and the academic and social support to ensure her success.
“The White House just held a summit for higher education leaders to talk about how to improve college success among minority and first-generation students,” Lynch said. “We believe you do that by sticking your institutional neck out and saying yes whenever and however an opportunity to help presents itself – and that’s what we’re doing here.”
It’s a partnership and an investment, not a gift, Lynch said. “We provide the opportunity, and the students provide the commitment, resiliency, ambition and intellect. Together, we transform their lives.”
That transformation will begin this summer, when Stephens invites Dominique to campus to participate in one of its many summer enrichment programs – from the sciences, to film, to fashion design, to equestrian studies, to musical theatre. Each summer until she graduates from high school, Stephens will offer Dominique the opportunity to spend time on campus – ensuring that the college truly begins to feel like a home.
And while she’s in Missouri, she may have an opportunity to meet another group of middle school students from New York City: Since 2011, Stephens College each summer has hosted a group of students from the Girls Prep Lower East Side Middle School, a charter school in New York City, in a week-long Leadership Academy. The students learn leadership skills, ride horses, visit local attractions, live in a dormitory, and imagine themselves as college students. In 2013, Stephens announced a Public Prep full scholarship that will be provided to a Public Prep graduate every year beginning in 2017, when the school’s first graduating class will be entering college.
“This is what providing real opportunity is all about,” Lynch says. “You can’t do it half-way. These kids need somebody to give them what they need to succeed. And that’s not just tuition. It’s a community that pays attention, and that cares enough to help them find their way.”
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