In 2007, when Dante Haughton was a fifth-grader at Edgewood Magnet School, he heard about Squash Haven, a new program offering squash training and academic support to New Haven public school students. Interested in an “exotic” sport and encouraged by his parents to join a program that would keep him and his twin sister productive after school, he took a chance on a fledgling program.
In the nine years since, Squash Haven, housed in Yale’s Brady Squash Center in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, has become one of the most successful community outreach programs in the city. It recruits from schools where 70 percent of families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and has helped dozens of students get to college. Haughton is now a sophomore at Skidmore College, studying business and the arts and working in the campus digital media lab.
Although Haughton’s college acceptance letter may have marked the end of his formal relationship with Squash Haven in past years, the organization now has a new initiative to support students through college and beyond. This year, Squash Haven added a new staff position, “Director of College Access and Persistence,” to further expand support for students during the college process and as they navigate their next academic experience.
“Getting into college is one thing; getting through it is another,” said Julie Greenwood, Squash Haven’s executive director, adding that the program is at a “crossroads” as it enters the final year of a three-year strategic plan, and its 10th year overall.
Since its inception, Squash Haven has benefited from its partnership with Yale, enjoying access to University squash courts and office space in Payne Whitney, financial support and opportunities to work with Yale squash players and undergraduate volunteer tutors. The organization’s seven full-time staff members offer a rigorous program of athletic instruction, academic enrichment and college advising to over 100 young participants. The program is supported by a roughly $600,000 budget and partnerships with 24 public schools across the city.
Beginning in ninth grade, Squash Haven students learn about different types of colleges and financial aid options. Throughout high school, Squash Haven offers standardized test prep, college tours, assistance with diversity overnight program applications and helps students form initial college lists. By senior year, students work with staff members on their college applications and admissions strategies.
Now, with the addition of the new position, there is a new focus on “college persistence”: making sure that students succeed once they get to college and even supporting them as they enter the workforce or graduate schools, said Christian Aviles, the new director of college access and persistence. Squash Haven staff members alert students to resources on campus, connect them with summer internship opportunities and offer guidance through any issues that might arise.
Greenwood pointed out that many Squash Haven participants are the first in the family to attend college and do not have access to the “lived wisdom” of experience that other students might have.
“We’re really there as a support mechanism,” she said.
As a, first-generation college student from a low-income family himself, Aviles knew nothing about squash when he arrived at Amherst College in 2010, he said. After getting involved in the sport and receiving his US Squash Coaching Certificate, Aviles heard about Squash Haven’s work and was immediately impressed.
Though he had not seen the program in person, he “took a leap of faith” on the job and said that his instincts were correct.
“It’s definitely worth flying across the country for,” said Aviles, who arrived two weeks ago from Los Angeles.
Early Tuesday morning, Aviles was helping a student who participated in Squash Haven buy books before class at Gateway Community College in New Haven. Later in the day, Greenwood and her staff had two separate conversations with students struggling with college expenses not covered by their financial aid packages.
In addition to Aviles’ outreach efforts, every Squash Haven staff member is expected to check in on five to six students as they navigate college. Through phone calls, birthday cards and care packages, staff members maintain relationship with students they met as middle schoolers.
“One student I talk to every few days, and when she’s home from school, she comes to my house for breakfast,” said Christi Boscarino-Elligers, Squash Haven’s director of academics and instructional development.
Squash Haven participants currently in college attested to the depth of the staff’s continued support.
Rafiatou Ouro-Aguy, who joined Squash Haven in ninth grade after seeing the program’s impact on her brother’s life, is now a junior at Hamilton College studying abroad in Paris.
Ouro-Aguy, who plays on the varsity women’s squash team at Hamilton, says that although she is no longer in New Haven, Squash Haven staff continue to “go above and beyond to make sure that I do well.” This past summer, Squash Haven helped Ouro-Aguy secure a 10-week internship at Simon & Schuster.
“It’s like a machine that runs on people’s support, and in the future, I hope I could also help fuel the machine,” she wrote in an email.
For many students, participating in Squash Haven ensured many other lasting benefits. Michael Rodriguez, a freshman at Connecticut College who began the program in fifth grade, said that although he joined the program as an overweight child, through the program’s physical training and nutritional guidance, he shed 40 pounds.
“They have supported me academically, athletically and have helped me develop as an individual. They make sure they put you on the right path for success,” he said.
During high school, Haughton benefited from the wide range of Squash Haven’s college preparation help. He first heard about Skidmore through Squash Haven and toured the campus on a trip arranged by the program. He is grateful that the Squash Haven staff encouraged him to apply because now he is at a college that is a perfect fit.
Squash Haven staff members continue to keep in contact, Haughton said, through phone calls, sending information on scholarships and internships and offering advice.
“I know Squash Haven will always support us as we move on in our lives, and it is great to see how the program grows every year,” he said.