Category: In the News
Coalition to Help Seniors Make Post-Secondary Plans

After a pilot project based on the Hartford Student Internship Program which ran last winter and spring, the ALL IN! Coalition plans to launch another effort to support members of the Class of 2022 this January. The program will again focus on post-secondary planning and placement for Hartford Public School seniors without plans for their lives after graduation.

While students were still learning remotely in the first half of 2021, the Coalition worked with the Hartford Public Schools staff to help many who were disengaged get onto a career pathway, thanks to financial support from local foundations. With tenacity, creativity and persistence to reach students who were not engaged in post-secondary planning, nonprofit partners gave support to 92 students who otherwise may not have received help planning for and enrolling in post-secondary pathways.

“Very few cities in America put forth an effort during COVID-19 to go out and engage the students who were not as involved in school and who didn’t have a post-secondary plan,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford and a leader in the coalition. “As a result, there were even students supported late in spring who ended up enrolling in a 4-year college.”

The pilot year of last-minute, spring intervention gave us some definite lessons. First, we asked too much of seniors, many of whom were busy working and helping with family during the pandemic, while also trying to learn remotely, he says. Getting them to complete workshops along with post-secondary planning and doing an internship was too much to expect.

This coming semester, we will try to reach students face-to-face at their schools. And we will keep the programming simple and focused on helping them with post-secondary planning. “They need support that meets them where they are,” he says. We also learned that we need to stick with students through and past the summer to ensure they reach their desired post-secondary placement – whether that be college, training or high-quality job.

Providers who continued working with seniors throughout the summer learned that engaging seniors during the spring and summer after graduation is particularly challenging, since seniors were burned out, especially last year with the pandemic raging. In the second year of this effort, the program will focus less on life-skills workshops and internships, since many students are already working. Instead, staff will work with them to further gauge their skills and interests, expose them to a multitude of post-secondary options that put them on a path toward earning a livable wage, and stay with them until placement.

“We hope to serve at least 100 students from the city’s neediest high schools by working with guidance counselors and community-based organizations with existing relationships with local high schools,” Holzer says. Funding to pay the local nonprofits’ staff to meet with and work with students will come from Hartford-based foundations with a long-standing commitment to the city. 

Mentee Becomes Mentor

Reanna O’Bryan began her first semester at Capital Community College in the fall of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be held virtually. She was assigned a peer mentor, who helped her connect with the college, despite the circumstances.

Her mentor asked her about how she felt taking her classes online and suggested time management skills to counteract procrastination, she says. Even though she had started taking college classes during her junior and senior years of high school, she still found the pressure of full-time college stressful, she says. She’d have multiple tabs on her screen open at once and be working on three assignments simultaneously.

Her mentor told her “to relax, take breaks and breathe,” she says. So, after her first year of college, the East Hartford resident applied for a job as a peer mentor with Achieve Hartford. “I see how helpful it was for me specifically just having someone to talk to,” she says. O’Bryan, who just turned 20, felt she could offer to other students the kind of support and encouragement, as well as practical advice, that had helped her.

She connected her mentees to tutoring offered through the academic services department. First-year students are often unaware of all the departments set up to help them, so she alerted them to services and sent reminders. She also offered to be a study buddy to one of her mentees whose grades were not where she wanted them to be. She set it up so they’d be on video-chat together, each doing their own homework.

“If I see someone else doing work, I want to be productive,” O’Bryan says. She said to her mentee, “ ‘I know college can be overwhelming. You can be honest with me. I’m also overwhelmed with college. Let’s help each other.’ ”

Like her, all of her mentees work while going to college and they talked about how daunted and intimidated they felt. She joined with other mentors to schedule group activities where the first-semester students could share, help each other and see that they’re not alone.

While she enjoyed the work, she says, she’ll earn her associate’s degree in January and will not continue mentoring at CCC. In the spring, she is continuing her education at Goodwin University to work on a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Mentors Moving On & Up

This December, we said goodbye to four mentors who can no longer work for Achieve Hartford because they’ll be graduating from their community college, taking on an internship or a full-time job. We hate to lose them but we celebrate their progress toward their career goals.

Mentor Julie Callejas, of East Hartford, has transferred to Charter Oak State College to earn her bachelor’s in organizational leadership and, eventually, a master’s. She is also becoming the interim executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, where she served on the board and stepped in to help out during a transitional period. Callejas already had an associate degree in social work and ran two businesses when she began working on a second degree at Manchester Community College to become a disability specialist.

We rarely have mentors as experienced as Julie, but with so many shared experiences with the freshmen she supported, she was always able to relate and add value. As a first-generation immigrant herself, she knew how hard it was to navigate the United States’ college system, especially financial aid, she says.

She tried to teach her mentees that in college, the teachers and staff won’t help them unless asked. “With the mentoring program, you’re teaching them, ‘If you’re struggling in this area, this is how you’re going to advocate for yourself and get what you need.’ ”

Another mentor, Stefan Hall, of Windsor, will be doing an internship at the accounting firm Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina in Glastonbury while also finishing his final semester at MCC.  After graduating in May with an associate degree in accounting and business administration, he plans to transfer next fall to UConn as a junior in the accounting program.

He’s been mentoring students for Achieve Hartford since June of 2020 and has found the job both challenging and rewarding. “Some students will probably think a mentor is just a spammer or scammer or an automated messaging system no matter how much we mix it up and change how we approach them.” This made the most difficult part of the job breaking through their suspicion and getting them to connect, he says.

The most rewarding part, was being able to help students. “I know firsthand how navigating college can be a bit of a maze at first, even without the coursework that comes with it,” he says. “It is a great feeling to help and to see students successfully navigate college, access the myriad of opportunities and supports it offers and then to see them not only do well, but be excited to continue their journey into the next semester and beyond.”

Mentor Isis Murillo Bravo, whose three jobs totaled full-time work while attending MCC, will be working 40 hours a week in two jobs instead. She’ll be working for MCC and 30 hours a week working with students for GEAR UP CT at East Hartford High School, in a job that’s similar to her role as a mentor. The East Hartford resident, who moved here from Peru when she was 13, is scheduled to earn her associate degree this spring and is awaiting responses to her college transfer applications before deciding where to complete her bachelor’s degree. We’re also losing Reanna O’Bryan, who graduates from Capital Community College in January and has transferred to Goodwin University to continue her nursing education. (See Mentee Becomes Mentor)

Mentor Guides, Reassures New Students

In her three years as a student at Manchester Community College, Isis Murillo Bravo has requested more financial aid, struggled with several classes and dropped four, disliked a professor and questioned her competence for college-level work. She’s also worked full time, lived in her own apartment and worried about how she’d pay for college.

Bravo mentors several students like her – most first-generation, low-income students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants unfamiliar with the American college system. She moved to East Hartford from Peru at 13 to live with her father. His refusal to provide the tax return information necessary for Bravo to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prevented her from attending college right after high school. Instead, she worked during a gap year and eventually convinced her stepmother to give her the tax return data she needed to complete the FAFSA.

When mentoring prospective students last summer and first-year students this fall, she drew from her own challenges.

“A lot of them are going through this thinking they’re the only ones struggling,” Bravo says. “I don’t want these students to think they’re not college material. It all comes down to the resources they had in hand. I’ll send emails saying, ‘We’re all struggling. I still struggle. It’s not meant to be easy.’”

Bravo works as a mentor in Achieve Hartford’s Summer Transition and College Persistence programs, which provide students from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor mentoring support in the summer before college and their fall and spring semesters of their first year. She’s guided them to adjust to college expectations, where their professors won’t get after them if they miss class or an assignment. At the same time, she’s told them: If they need help from their professor or academic support services, all they have to do is ask. She’s told them about college resources, including staff who help students apply for food assistance benefits and scholarships.

One of her mentees, who had moved from El Salvador three years earlier, lacked the English language fluency to do well in the five courses in which he had enrolled. Bravo took him to the international student office and attended the appointment with him, acting as morale support and a translator. He learned he could enroll in English as a Second Language classes for which he was eligible for financial aid. He dropped his college classes and, with help from the international student office, the college waived the $50 fee per class. Once he reaches English 101 proficiency, she says, he plans to re-enroll.

Several of her mentees are working full- or part-time and caring for family while attending college with little to no family support. When she asked them at a recent mentee meeting to write down on a note card something they wanted to brag about, she says, “everyone had a really hard time acknowledging their successes. We have a couple of students who are bilingual. They didn’t see that as a strength. It was very eye-opening to have these conversations.”

She pointed out that just still being in school was something to be proud of, that some were artistic, bilingual or working. She encouraged them to take the time to be proud of themselves for being in college, reminding them some of their peers had already dropped out.

One mentee, a Latinx man, texted her afterward to say that because of his upbringing, it’s difficult for him to share his feelings and struggles in front of others. “I told him I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I see my dad not expressing his feelings and that led us to having a negative relationship,” Bravo says. “I try to show him he’s doing the right thing by trying to be more open about his mental health.”

First-Year Student Settles In at MCC

Windsor resident Lisa Chin did not see herself as a future college student a few years ago, but her high school guidance counselor suggested she start small at a community college. She had struggled in high school with undiagnosed ADHD, so she began this fall by taking just two required courses – English and math. She credits her peer mentor with giving her the guidance, practical skills and support she needed to start and become engaged with college.

Before enrolling at Manchester Community College, Chin had never finished an essay, she says. This semester, she has surprised herself by writing an essay a month. Her Achieve Hartford mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, “gives me a lot of tips on how to start that kind of stuff.” Her mentor has taught her how to break the tasks up into manageable chunks from the time she receives the assignment and “not waiting until the last minute. In the past, I had to work against my
brain. My ADHD made me feel like I had to work twice as hard at something.”

Her mentor answered her questions and saw where she struggled. Bravo sat down with Chin and helped her create a time-management schedule for when to do homework for each class, she says. Her mentor taught her to review her completed essays for what worked and what didn’t and coached her on effective proofreading before handing essays in, Chin says.

Chin dropped out of high school and, after deciding a life in retail wasn’t for her, returned a few months later. At college, she says, she initially struggled with imposter syndrome. That changed when she began attending biweekly ‘tea time’ meetings with her mentor and other mentees. Through our Summer Transition and College Persistence programs in partnership with Capital and Manchester Community Colleges, we hire, train and supervise college students to work as peer mentors to first-year, mostly first-generation students. We serve graduates of public schools in Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor; these programs began as ALL IN! Coalition Action Team pilot programs with Hartford students.

“Having that extra support and someone you can go to to ask questions so you don’t feel like you’re alone is really helpful. When you go to college, you’re alone. You don’t feel comfortable asking people for help. The tea time is really helpful. You get to meet people; you get out of your comfort zone,” she says. “I wish everybody had a mentor like Isis.”

With Bravo’s encouragement, she has been attending a campus National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter meetings and a roller-skating party. This has allowed her meet other first-semester students and get to know them. MCC held the New Student Orientation online as a series of sessions. “It was really refreshing to sit down and meet other students,” she says. “You get to talk to people who have the same interests as you.”

Bravo has also guided her through practical steps – helping her register for fall classes during the summer and, this fall, reminding her of the deadlines to submit the FAFSA and register for spring classes.

Having Bravo as her mentor “feels like a friend. You don’t feel like you’re talking to a mentor,” Chin says. “She’s played a really big role into me transitioning into MCC.”

This Giving Tuesday, We’re Grateful for You

In honor of Giving Tuesday, our board is matching private donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000. This is the first time in four years we’re actively seeking individual contributions and we hope you’ll give what you can, no matter the amount, at

Since its founding, Achieve Hartford has worked to serve low-income, underserved people, most of whom are people of color. The pandemic has revealed to the wider population what we knew and have been working to address for 12 years: Children growing up in low-income households have less likelihood of starting and completing college, no matter how hard working and intelligent they are.

“We believe, with the right supports and encouragement, every high school student can get on a path to reaching their potential,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “The students we mentor are grateful to their mentors for helping them beat the odds and start and persist in college. We’re grateful to our funders for helping make our work possible.”

In the words of our mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, a Manchester Community College student, a big part of her job is reassuring first-generation students that their struggles and self-doubt are universal. When they tell her they can’t find the time to do their homework and are ready to drop out, “I calm them down and help them understand those feelings are valid. We all go through them. I make sure they know they’re not alone,” she says. “I tell them, because they’re learning to feel comfortable asking questions, they’re ahead of their peers.”

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