Athena is from Camden, New Jersey (insert all the myths, lies, half-truths, and realities here). Schools and police force: state takeover. Two comprehensive high schools: both ranked at the bottom yearly. A food desert has created a community where childhood obesity and diabetes are more common than in other communities around the country. The unemployment rate—double the state average. Medium household income is $20,000. And, yes, Camden infamously ranks at the top of America’s most dangerous cities.
Still, there is much to be proud of—like the Center for Environmental Transformation, creating urban gardens; The Neighborhood Center—a city staple with programming for people of all ages as well as emergency services; and, experiencing a resurgence, Pyne Poynt Little League which is molding young men, and I Dare to Care which focuses on empowering girls.
And then there are kids like Athena.
She is smart, gritty, and a loyal friend if you earn her trust. She will not let life in Camden defeat her—she dares to dream in a city where poverty produces way too many nightmares. She is determined to take advantage of opportunities that empower her and fuel her passions, and she’ll readily dismiss any nonbelievers. But she was not always this confident in herself and her direction.
I met Athena in 2008 through my role as director of a new bold and ambitious initiative established at Rutgers University, the Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) program. RFS is a multifaceted college access, success, and scholarship program designed to empower students like Athena in areas of academics, culture, and finances.
In 2007, the year before we launched RFS, less than 10 Camden City public school graduates enrolled at Rutgers-Camden. The fact that only 7% of Camden residents have earned a college degree even though there is a top-notch university in their backyard is shameful…on Rutgers. What civic responsibility do we bear as a member of the community? Universities are only as good as the communities they call home. One of our responses was launching RFS.
Each year, RFS introduces 200 first-generation, low-income and academically promising middle school students from school districts in our four campus communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden to the promise and opportunities of a college education. Beginning in the summer preceding 8th grade, Scholars become part of a unique pre-college culture of university programming, events, support, and mentoring that continues through their high school years, and eventually college.
For students who successfully complete the pre-college part of the program and earn admission to Rutgers, we provide full tuition funding through scholarships and federal grants. In short, the Rutgers Future Scholars offers both hope and opportunity.
To date, we serve 1200 Scholars in grades 8 through their freshman year of college. Ninety-seven percent graduated high school and 96% enrolled in college. In our first class of 183 Scholars—projected to graduate in 2017—nearly 100 enrolled at Rutgers University. Scholars at our local community colleges can also earn a full-tuition scholarships to complete their bachelor’s degree at Rutgers.
Athena has successfully completed her first year at the Rutgers School of Nursing and boasts a strong GPA. She also has embraced a leadership role on campus.
“Future Scholars has given me the support system I needed to succeed,” says Athena. “When things got rough, they pushed me and never let me give up on my education. They are my family.”
The reality is this: America has hundreds of Camdens and hundreds of thousands of Athenas. Children are being awakened too early from the American dream. Meritocracy doesn’t seem to have room for everyone here—some may argue it’s purposely so. An opportunity gap widens the division between those relying on just hope and those who have real opportunities. Serving communities that are typically out of sight and out of mind—with a focused intentionality—will benefit all of us.
The future of America—and the solutions to many of our nation’s problems—lie within the untapped talents and aspirations of children like Athena. Rutgers Future Scholars and other community-focused programs are attempting to transform our nation by investing in human potential.