Two weeks ago, a SMART senior received a big envelope from France. He nervously fiddled with the package, before finally finding the courage to open it. Inside he found a letter congratulating him on his acceptance to The American University of Paris.
"I'm not supposed to be here. Everything I've been through should have led to me to dropping out of high school. This acceptance, even if I don't know if I can afford to go, means EVERYTHING to me."
It’s extremely difficult for him to talk about his life growing up; his first draft of his college essay consisted of his struggle making friends in his new school and completing a ropes course in middle school. But his story of perseverance through life challenges is what makes him stand out among thousands of applicants. Diligently working in an essay writing workshop at SMART, his background became a source of empowerment rather than shame. He described his life without mentors, and having to find a balance between two different worlds: his neighborhood community and his independent schools. He dove into his discovery that he loves to learn new languages and other cultures, and how, without the exceptional education he received in his independent schools, he would have never been introduced to either. I still remember the shy, and a bit mischievous, student he was when I first met him over eight years ago. Of course, I want all of our students to attend a four-year college, wherever it may be. But not-so-secretly, my goal has always been to get all of our students to attend an out-of-state school as many of them had never even crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when I first met them. To showcase this student now, the first SMART Scholar to receive an acceptance into an international school…the word “proud” hardly encompasses all of the emotions that course through my heart.
SMART focuses not only on academic successes of our students, but their social-emotional needs as well. We teach about empowerment, social justice, and self-awareness in parallel to increasing academic rigor and support in our after-school program. Our Middle School Achievement Program (MAP) mirrors the college-attainment goals of our new College Access Program (CAP), which was developed out of explicit need from our students and families. SMART is determined to provide the right support and structure to make the college dream into a reality, and to provide this much needed support to more students in San Francisco and beyond.
The path to that success is complicated for any student, but even more difficult for low-income students. 8% of low-income students graduate from college, and for students whose parents did not attend college, the likelihood of earning a degree drops to 4%.
My exceptional students at SMART will be among the 4%. The odds are so frustratingly small, but we are determined. While I highlight an incredible personal journey of just one student above, this year, one great accomplishment shared by SMART and our graduating seniors is that 100% of our students have submitted applications to University of California and California State Universities ON TIME as of this writing. In addition to a vast array of schools all around California, our seniors are applying to some amazing schools across the country, including Franklin & Marshall College (PA), Fordham University (NY), Bowdoin College (ME), NYU, Carnegie Mellon University (PA), Yale University (CT), Dartmouth College (NH), University of Chicago (IL), and more. .
“SMART sets high expectations for me. I feel safe to be challenged, to ask for help, to self-advocate, and most importantly, to be myself. My private school gives me a great education, and SMART balances this amazing experience with programming that lifts me to the same playing field as my private school peers who have always aspired to go to some of the best colleges in the nation.”
SMART provides students with college tours, workshops on college affordability, parent education series, and professional tutors. We are currently working to develop partnerships with new independent middle schools and with high schools, and to open up new entry points in 6th and 9th grades. Through partnerships with incredible educators at independent schools, we are working collaboratively to ensure the academic success of each and every one of our students. We are building individual success stories, one student at a time.
I take this opportunity to thank all of the individuals who have made SMART the success that it is today: our dedicated staff, board and 80+ volunteer tutors and mentors, our donors, the parents and guardians of our students, 50+ referral partners, and the countless number of educators in our 21 (and counting) partner independent schools. We simply cannot do the work that we do without this support, and I hope to count you as one of our dedicated supporters.
During this holiday season of giving, I ask you to please support children in need. Focus on education. Volunteer. Should you choose SMART as the beneficiary of your generous support, you will be helping us achieve our goal of ensuring that 100% of our students enter the four-year college of their choice. As our Board generously funds 100% of our administrative and overhead costs, your donation will go directly toward supporting our programs and students.
The journey to The American University of Paris is still a long one for our SMART Scholar. Through our College Access Program, he is required to apply for 10 different scholarships, research loans and saving plans, and attendCAP workshops on budgeting and financial aid to see if he can turn his dream of studying abroad into a reality. In his back pocket though, he so far has options to attend UC Riverside, CSU Stanislaus, and University of New Haven, , each of which have sent warm congrats on his acceptance into their schools—and acceptance letters continue to come in. Paris or not, our Scholar WILL be going to a four-year college next year, and it is SMART's goal to make this a reality for all of our students.
I leave you with a quote from a recent college graduate, who exemplifies what a SMART Scholar is all about:
"As early as elementary school, I expressed a desire for a successful future and an opportunity to improve the conditions of my family and my community. I grew up in an immigrant family in San Francisco’s Mission District. My parents were supportive and hoped for the best for me, but they lacked the resources I needed to reach my full potential. SMART stepped in to fill that gap. SMART nurtured my appreciation for education, set high expectations for me and provided me with the tools I needed to succeed. In 2007, I became the first in my family to graduate from high school, and in 2012, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science. Graduating from college was a huge achievement for me and for my family. I owe my success in part to my determination and skill, but also largely to the support that I received from SMART.”
Thank you for your consideration. Wishing you and yours a warm and wonderful holiday season.
P.S. Being a bit of a proud mama hen, I am showcasing a photo of Vivian, a freshman at Carleton College (my alma mater). She is the 2nd student from SMART to attend Carleton - a school she would have NEVER heard about if she wasn't a part of SMART! She is about to face her first Minnesota winter this year - please wish her luck!