Many Yalies have been perplexed, at some point, by the hordes of curious New Haven schoolchildren who occasionally invade Commons at lunchtime. One group of budding scholars recently expanded its claim to Yale, trooping through the halls of the Law School to hold an audience with the school’s top official.

On Monday, a group of high school students, their parents and a few law students attended a talk by Law School Dean Harold Koh. The event was organized by Hillhouse Scholars, an organization that provides mentoring and financial scholarships for local low-income students to attend either Sacred Heart Academy or Notre Dame High School, elite private high schools.

Koh spoke to the group about his experiences as an immigrant growing up in New Haven, recalling his childhood encounters with law school faculty. He detailed how he entered his law career by doing sometimes dangerous humanitarian work abroad.

“I think it all goes back to this feeling that some people are determined to work for others and make their lives better, [and] some people don’t care,” Koh said. “I hope that by being a part of this program, you guys can make a difference.”

Many of the scholars, who come from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, said Koh’s words of encouragement were especially meaningful.

“It was good to listen to someone else who knows how it feels,” said sophomore Nia Mote, a Hillhouse Scholar at Sacred Heart Academy. “It gives me courage knowing that I can do something, knowing that someone else has been through it and has come out on top.”

All of the students chosen to be Scholars undergo a rigorous application process that includes detailing individual achievement and enthusiasm as well as showing academic promise.

“These are students who would fall through the cracks if people didn’t help them,” Executive Director Monique Marez ’07 said. “[The Program] provides them with different opportunities that, without education, they would never have access to.”

Marez said she hopes Koh’s story will help motivate students and get them to realize their potential.

Parents present at the speech also said they found him inspiring.

“I thought Koh was really interesting,” said Lori Conory, the mother of Scholar Joey Teta. “It just goes to show that there isn’t anything you can’t do if you put your mind to it.”

Besides receiving financial scholarships, each Scholar is also paired with a mentor, generally either a Yale graduate student or a New Haven professional. Scholars meet with their mentors at least once a month, though many pairs meet weekly.

“As a mentor, I hope to be a positive role model for my mentee,” recent University of Connecticut graduate and Notre Dame High School alumnus Chris Olt said. “I had a great experience at Notre Dame, and since I know what they have to offer, it’s been a really positive experience.”

Yale undergraduates are also eligible to serve as mentors for the Hillhouse Scholars Program.