Promise director reflects on low-income challenges

When Patricia Melton ’82 first came to Yale, she was a first-generation college student barely able to afford textbooks. Thirty years later, she’s back in New Haven helping other high school students get on the path to a college degree.

Melton, the executive director of the Yale-funded scholarship program New Haven Promise, discussed her career in education reform at a Branford College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon. Speaking before an audience of eight students, Melton focused her talk on the work New Haven Promise is doing to promote college education as an aspiration for all New Haven public school students. She encouraged audience members to question the culture of privilege at Yale and consider the challenges that face low-income students.

“At the New Haven Promise, we’re in the business of dream-making,” Melton said. “Education is a long road, and students need to hear about opportunities they’ll have if they stay in school.”

Melton began her talk outlining the history of the New Haven Promise and the personal experiences that drew her to the organization. Currently in its second year, the scholarship program offers full tuition at in-state colleges for all students who attend New Haven Public Schools, maintain at least a 3.0 grade-point average, have 90 percent attendance and complete 40 hours of community service. Melton said the program’s goal is to create a culture among New Haven students that emphasizes the value of a college education.

In trying to understand the difficulties that low-income college students face, Melton said she draws on her own personal experiences. During her freshman year at Yale, Melton arrived a week late to school because she had trouble finding the money for a plane ticket. When her brother was killed by gunfire, she said she did not know how to tell her college dean even though the trauma was affecting her schoolwork.

“It’s difficult at Yale because everyone is a superhuman, and it’s not a badge of honor to have a weakness,” Melton said. “With the Promise, we try to get to know our students and form relationships so that when issues arise, they feel comfortable approaching us.”

Students interviewed at the Master’s Tea said they enjoyed Melton’s talk because it catered to their interests in education and school reform.

Devin Mahoney ’16, a Promise Scholar at Yale, praised Melton and emphasized the impact of the New Haven Promise on city youth. Mahoney said she expects the Promise to provide academic motivation for students in future years, adding that the program was created when she was a high school junior and did not play a large role in shaping her academic aspirations as a result.

“Whenever I think about the Promise, I think about my little brother Jake,” Mahoney said. “He was a freshman when it was instituted. My parents are always reminding him that if he keeps up his GPA, he’ll have a full ride at college, and that really keeps his hopes up.”

Two audience members interviewed at the Tea are taking political science professor John Starr’s class “Public Schools and Public Policy,” and cited the seminar as one of the factors that prompted their interest in the New Haven Promise. One audience member, Catherine Dinh ’13, said she hopes to become a middle school English teacher next year and was drawn to the Tea due to her interest in the politics of education.

The New Haven Promise is sponsored by Yale University, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Wells Fargo.

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