It’s 1965 on the North Side of Chicago. Living in a poor neighborhood about a mile from the United Center, a high school senior dreams of playing college basketball. With his mother busy scrubbing the floors late at night at the Chicago Athletic Club and his father working as an elevator operator, he looks to a local community center to help him reach his goals. Learning lessons of hard work and determination at the center, the young man springboards into a basketball career at the United States Military Academy. And on to become the winningest coach in the history of Division 1 basketball.
Now it’s 2012 and nine high school seniors, all women, in Durham, North Carolina are dreaming too. Some dream of going into humanitarian aid. Others want to be accountants.
But they all aspire to one day be the first in their families to graduate from college, a dream that The Emily Krzyzewski Center’s Scholars to College program is helping make a reality.
“We’re told it’s all about dreams,” said 17-year-old Brittany Lambright, who is part of the inaugural graduating class of the Scholars to College program and hopes to be an orthodonist. “But you have to have the plan to back those dreams up.”
Named after Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s mother, the Durham center draws its mission from the skills that Krzyzewski learned as a young boy at his community center in Chicago. The program, established in 2008, is part of the Emily K Center’s larger “K to College” model that pledges to serve academically-focused, low-income students who seek to achieve in school, gain entry to college and break the cycle of poverty in their families through out-of-school programming.
Although each student enrolled in the Scholars to College program qualifies for free and reduced lunch, the Emily K Center recognizes that financial barriers are just one of many obstacles that face low-income students in their pursuit of higher education. Implementing the program, targeting ninth to 12th grade students, the Center offers personal college admissions counseling, standardized testing preparation and financial advising including exposure to different scholarship opportunities. “Kids can articulate that they want to go to college, but it is another thing to maintain that level of success through your high school career to actually get there,” Executive Director Adam Eigenrauch said. “The program is about demystifying the system.”
Eigenrauch, who has devoted more than 10 years to North Carolina’s education system, is just one of many dedicated staff members at the Center. Explaining the Center’s process for recruiting students, Eigenrauch said the program demands considerable family involvement. Although the students are not hand selected by the Center, the structure of the program facilitates a commitment that sets students apart from their peers.
“They are special kids, but certainly not unique kids,” Eigenrauch said. “There are kids all over Durham who have potential and want to work hard and do both of those things and don’t do it in a way that results in college. The thing that really stands out is the commitment.”
Brittany said her mother, like the other scholars’ parents, has made her children’s education a priority. After beginning college but discontinuing her studies due to economic constraints, she sought out better college preparation for her daughter at Emily K.
“Some of the parents have said to me that they don’t know where their family would be without this program,” lead counselor Jennifer Umvarger said. “Brittany’s mom feels very strongly about the program and she has a real strong desire to see her child successful.”
Four years since the commencement of the program, the first class of seniors boasts more than 20 college acceptance letters from five states and more than $120,000 in scholarship opportunities. Despite the impressive accolades of these young students, they all expressed anxiety over the prospect of financing their college education. The Center has put the students in a position to get into their dream colleges. Now, financial aid packages and scholarship opportunities will decide where they will actually study.
“I can dream all day, but the finances have to be there as well,” Brittany said. “We are trying to focus on graduating with the minimum amount of debt possible.”
High school senior Vianey Martinez carried around a dictionary when she moved to the United States. When she was nine years old, her family moved to Durham to reunite with her father who had left Mexico earlier in search for a better way to support his loved ones. In the beginning Vianey cried frequently, missing her family and friends from home and scared about not knowing the language. But, dictionary in hand, she made learning the language of her new home a priority, setting her apart from her fellow English as a Second Language peers.
“Moving was a very drastic change for my family,” Vianey recounts. “I figured I had no other option but to learn the language. I wasn’t going to be able to go back.”
Given the sacrifices her parents have made for her and her younger brother, going to college has always been the only option. But the inability to properly communicate to her parents the rigorous and competitive application process has been frustrating.
“My family doesn’t know a whole lot about going to college and the fact that they don’t speak English makes it even harder,” Vianey said. “I think my parents just thought college applications were just a basic application that asked you some personal information.” But after joining Emily K last year, Vianey said her parents are more at ease knowing that there are people motivating their daughter to reach her full potential.
Recently admitted to several colleges in North Carolina, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Meredith College and Elon University, she said going to college close to home is important.
“I know they are here for me and I think it is the fair thing for me to stay close,” Vianey said.
Still awaiting financial aid packages and scholarship decisions, she said Meredith is her first choice because of its small college feel, but ultimately she will attend whatever college offers her the most financial support.
Carey Cabrera knows all too well what Vianey is going through. Passionate about music, singing and the arts, she is a senior at Durham School of the Arts with aspirations to go into humanitarian aid. At her high school, she said there is one college counselor for all 170 seniors. But at the Emily K Center, she shares her head counselor with only two other girls—support she needs as the daughter of a single mother with five children.
“College is such a big step. It is a milestone and you need guidance,” she said. “My mom doesn’t have the time or energy to make sure I have all my college essays down and read over it all. I feel like I needed a way to get a handle on all of that, and that is definitely what I have gotten here.”
After taking advantage of a summer SAT class offered by the Emily K Center, Carey was able to boost her score more than 200 points. She is convinced that it was those 200 points, and the constant guidance of the Center, that earned her admittance to her reach universities: McCalaester College and Wellesley College. Now she just has to figure out how to pay for it.
“I was discouraged about college and finance,” she admits. “But coming to Emily K and seeing that there are all these different ways to pay for college has been really encouraging.”
Eigenrauch said the Center is aware of the large financial component associated with each student’s ability to attend college. But counselors don’t let that reality affect students’ drive. Instead, the Center communicates to students that the more attractive they are as a college student, the more options they will have once financial aid packages roll in.
“Our goal is to help you get into college, but getting into college and going are not one and the same,” he said. “Being able to afford it is a part of it. Let’s not do high school just to do high school, but let’s do high school in a way that positions you to get into college.”
The benefits of the Scholars to College program have extended beyond the nine girls. Carey, like many of the other girls, has taken it upon herself to help her peers outside of the program navigate the college process, armed with the skills and strategies that they have learned at the Center.
“I have friends in different social groups, some are more academic than others,” Carey said. “They are really smart—I know they could go to college, but they don’t have the resources and the motivation. I am just really grateful that I am lucky enough to have those resources and that I have Emily K.”
Carey acknowledges the lofty price tag associated with her private education dreams. But she said, despite money always being an object in her family, her mother was always an advocate for her education.
“My mother always told me, ‘Don’t feel disadvantaged. Do what you want to do, we’ll figure it out,” she said.
When asked who their heroes were, the young women did not look to their favorite athlete or the most recent American Idol. Instead, Carey, Vianey, Brittany and others all named their parents. Carey applauded her mother for raising five kids while still maintaining a full-time job. Vianey said her parents, still not able to speak English and desperately missing their family, have remained in the United States as a sacrifice for their children’s future. And Brittany is thankful for all the hours her mother puts in during the night shift at work.
“They have always done the things that they do for me and my brother so we can have more than they did,” Vianey said. “I think they sometimes think that they are not supporting us as much as they could be, but they are always there for us.”
Krzyewski’s passion for basketball is distinct from Carey’s love of singing, Vianey’s love of numbers and Brittany’s passion for orthodontics. But what the young women have in common with their benefactor is a devoted family and a community center helping them to achieve their dreams. Providing him with an example that he would follow for life, Krzyzewski’s parents, including his mother, who the Center memorializes, set a foundation for his future success. As these girls sit on the precipice of their college dreams, they will never forget how their parents supported them in their dreams. Or how the Emily K Center gave them the tools to actually get there.