Early Sunday afternoon, dozens of students and their parents hesitantly entered Dwight Hall and stepped up to the registration desk piled with blue folders reading “Welcome to Yale” and bearing the “Lux et Veritas” seal. It could have been the beginning of freshman orientation, except for two things — the temperature was in the 30s and the students were still juniors in high school.
It was day one of Eli Days, Yale College Council’s kickoff event of an ongoing college mentoring program for New Haven public high-school students. Featuring panels, speakers and the first of several one-on-one mentor-student sessions, the programming marked the first stage of what YCC officials hope will become an institutionalized component of Yale’s community-outreach structure.
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“With the conference and the partnership, the goal is to provide [high-school students] with resources concerning the college process that they might not have had otherwise,” said YCC President Rebecca Taber ’08, who planned much of Eli Days. “Eli Days is a kickoff for the student to come to the mentor and to form a deeper relationship beyond tutoring in the classroom.”
Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel pointed out that although this particular event does not specifically target prospective Yale applicants, it fits in with the administration’s ongoing efforts to reach out to low-income students nationwide.
The conference participants, on campus Sunday and Monday, were selected by their guidance counselors from three New Haven public high schools — Co-op High School, High School in the Community and Hill Regional Career High School — to participate at no cost in the Eli Days program. Of the 75 high school students chosen, only about 45 attended Sunday’s activities, though YCC officials hope for better turnout today.
At the end of the day Monday, the students will return to their high-school lives and the mentors will head back to the dorms.
But if the vision of Taber and former YCC Secretary Zach Marks ’09 plays out, mentors and students will be seeing much more of each other in the coming weeks.
As the students move through the college admissions process — taking the SATs, deciding which schools to apply to, visiting campuses and figuring out financial-aid procedures — their mentors will be advising and helping them every step of the way.
“A success from this weekend would be if some Yale students and high-school students establish a bond that’s stronger than, ‘Oh, I go to Co-op [High School] every Friday to help this kid with his college essay’ — if it becomes, ‘I care about this kid and I want him to do well,’” Marks explained. “We’re trying to create that real, personal relationship.”
The students — who arrived with parents in tow — seemed well-informed about the basics of the college application process and eager to learn more.
When asked, Co-op High School junior Dorothy Downey rattled off a list of schools she wants to apply to: New York University, Emerson College in Boston and the Juilliard School.
But despite having planned ahead to some extent, Downey said she hopes her mentor will be able to help her better understand the application process and assist her with the nitty-gritty aspects of financial aid.
The mentors, on the other hand, have both their own personal experiences and an arsenal of materials compiled by the Eli Days organizing team to share with their students.
Mentor Alex Bertoli ’09, who attended a small public school on Long Island, said he sees this as an opportunity to help others who might not have access to the guidance he did.
“If I didn’t have all the help, I don’t think I would have ended up going here,” said Bertoli, who was assisted by the Yale coaches who recruited him for rowing as well as his school’s guidance counselors.
In a welcome speech to the high-school students and their parents, Kwame Spearman LAW ’09 — co-founder of Yale’s student-run College Acceptance volunteer counseling program — said the students have an advantage coming from the city of New Haven because most schools are now placing a heavy emphasis on diversity.
Not only are schools eager to recruit minority and urban students, he said, but many are also increasing their financial-aid budgets in an attempt to alleviate the financial burden on students in the lowest income brackets.
The mentors will help students identify schools that are a good “match” for them and investigate their financial-aid options, Spearman told the group.
Still, Spearman said in an interview, mentoring programs alone cannot tackle all of the problems many of these students face during the college process.
The lack of individual attention in the classroom represents a significant hurdle for college counseling efforts, Spearman said. Many students emerge from high school unprepared for college because public high schools cannot offer focused support for each student, he said.
“The deeper-rooted aspect of the problem is really in the systemic ways that we approach education,” Spearman said. “When we go in [to tutor] we have [volunteers] who are engineers or doctors who say, ‘Oh, I’m a terrible writer. I shouldn’t be tutoring writing.’ And we have to reassure them that the skills level is just so low that anything they do will be a tremendous help.”
Although the Yale admissions office did not organize Eli Days, the office has helped defray some of the costs of the program as well as generate ideas for activities, Brenzel said. Admissions officers are also participating in some of the events, panels and talks.
Last August, Yale hosted a College Summit workshop for high-school guidance counselors and students to help high schoolers who would not normally consider college learn about the application process.
College Summit, a nonprofit founded by J.B. Schramm ’86, works with high schools in low-income areas to facilitate the spread of information concerning college opportunities.
The organization trains counselors and students to enable them to create a “college culture” that will make higher education seem more accessible.
Although these efforts will not target many prospective Yale applicants, Brenzel said, they are valuable contributions to national low-income outreach efforts.
Among other activities, Eli Days featured an address from Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Fleming Norcott, a scavenger hunt on the Yale campus, panels on the application process and choosing a college, and mentor-student discussion time.