For the Ivy League Connection, a local community organization, getting the kids of West Contra Costa County into college can be a challenge. Getting them into Ivy League institutions can be even more difficult, but that's exactly the task they set for themselves.
"There wasn't a defining moment or a big epiphany saying we have to do it -- it just kind of grew," says Don Gosney, Ivy League Connection co-founder. "We" refers to him and School Board members Charles Ramsey and Madeline Kronenberg, the three founders of the Ivy League Connection (ILC). For the past nine years, Kronenberg, Ramsey, and Gosney have dedicated thousands of hours to sending kids from West Contra Costa Unified high schools to Ivy League universities for summer programs. Each of their roles has changed over the course of the program's development, but for each of them, it’s a significant amount of volunteer time. "I put in 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, year round for Ivy League Connection," explains Gosney. "We're already working on next year's program."
It's easy to see how Gosney, Kronenberg, and Ramsey can put so many hours into the ILC. From visiting each of the District's seven high schools to make presentations, to reading applications, to sending students off to universities around the country and then following up on their experiences, ILC leaders have a lot on their plate. In order to achieve ILC's ambitious goals, this kind of dedication is necessary.
"The ultimate goal of the ILC is to increase the college-going culture in the District -- to raise expectations for everyone, including teachers, administrators, students, and families," explains Kronenberg. Our students need to be encouraged to see their potential, and the ILC provides an opportunity to offer that encouragement." Often, this involves a little nudging outside of students' comfort zones from the ILC organizers. Right now, Kronenberg says, "the biggest challenge is having our students and families embrace the possibility of attending school far away from home."
Gosney, who attended Cal, knows first hand the drawbacks of attending large public universities. "As a freshman, students are going to attend calculus with 1,000 other people in a lecture hall, and they are being taught by a screen hanging down the from the ceiling. Or," he explains, "students can attend a private university like Brown, where the average class size is 18. The idea with the Ivy League Connection is to let students know there is more out there."
And the benefits of ILC aren’t just academic – they’re also financial. "Many graduates leave college with tremendous debt," says Gosney, "and the ILC offers a chance to go to a fantastic school where you can walk away with a quarter-million-dollar education and no debt." Such an unusual educational opportunity is a result of the ILC's deep relationships with the partnering universities. The ILC spends, on average, about $10,000 per student out of pocket, but in 2014 the organization was able to fund students’ scholarships from a pool of nearly $66,000, thanks to funding from the partnering universities, local private investors, and the District.
"We have built up relationships with each of the schools, and because of our success we are well known among highly selective universities," says Gosney. At this point, he explains, universities seek out the ILC. "When they partner with us and we're successful, it makes them look successful, too," he says. This might be part of why the University of Chicago recently established a partnership with the program. At the moment, five students are studying at the institution.
With the recent addition of the University of Chicago, the ILC currently partners with six universities around the country. Since partnering with Brown, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Colombia and Vanderbilt, more than 200 students from West Contra Costa County high schools have received scholarships to the ILC-partnered universities.
Ramsey, Kronenberg and Gosney are happy about the progress the ILC has made with connecting local students to these elite universities, but they still see room for improvement. One thing that immediately stands out upon looking at ILC's graduates is that they are a largely female crowd. Part of this can be explained by Brown University's Women & Leadership Program, which 9 of the 41 ILC students attend. But beyond that, of the 32 remaining students, only 11 are male. "It's very disproportionate," Gosney says with concern.
The issue is partly a lack of applicants who qualify for the program (a 3.75 GPA is mandatory), but more often it is the disporportionality in students who consider Ivy League schools an option. "The biggest problem we have is getting [students] to understand that they really can get into schools outside of Cal or UCLA," says Gosney.
Once the students attend these universities, however, it helps to shift this mindset. That keeps the organizers inspired, too. "I keep going because I know how effective the program is in changing the lives of the students who participate," says Kronenberg. When the students return, the organizers explain with pride, they are empowered in a way they weren't before.
Gearing up for the school year, the ILC organizers know they are bound to spend a few thousand more hours helping a new batch of kids prepare for a life-changing decision. "At the end of the day, what we want is for our kids to go to their right school for the right reason. That can be a Cal State school or an Ivy League school," says Gosney. "What we want to do at the Ivy League Connection is guide students down their best path."
You can learn more about the Ivy League Connection here.
Photo credit: Don Gosney