In the News, Scholar Stories

Thrive Scholars prepares low-income students for college success

July 11, 2022

Published by the Boston Business Journal, Written by Meera Raman

Leslie Mercedes was the first in her family to attend college in the U.S. She recently graduated from Boston University, where she studied business administration and marketing. She’s now gearing up to start a management program at Sephora in San Francisco in August. She credits Thrive Scholars for her success.

Thrive Scholars is a national nonprofit that mentors and educates high-achieving students of color from low-income communities. It has its roots in South Central Scholars (SCS), a 2001 South Central Los Angeles scholarship program for low-income Black students. Within a few years, 90% of the program’s scholars—which had expanded to include other marginalized students—were graduating from college.

But while the program’s students were graduating from college at rates far beyond the national average, many of them were switching out of their intended majors and were struggling to find jobs after graduation.

It became clear, after reviewing the scholars’ transcripts, that despite having excelled in high school, many high-achieving students struggled to keep up with the pace of their college classes. 

“Most students are coming from suburban schools or private schools, and our students are coming from under-resourced schools where the academic rigor isn’t the same. So when they show up to college, they’re a little bit behind, especially in math and writing,” said CEO Steve Stein, who is based in Boston.

So, the nonprofit launched the Summer Academy in 2012 to reverse this trend. The academy provides intense academic training for high school juniors and seniors. Rising juniors and seniors spend six weeks on a college campus being taught writing, reading and other skills by professors.

In 2015, the program expanded to Boston under the name Noonan Scholars and, three successful years later, they went national under the name Thrive Scholars.

Since the implementation of the Summer Academy, the average GPA of the scholars has increased from a 2.9 to a 3.4 and their college graduation rates have increased from 90% to 98%, according to Stein.

“That shows you that these students have the ability, they have the talent, and they have the motivation. They just need the opportunity to experience the same level of rigor as their peers do. And when they’re given those opportunities, they outperform them,” said Stein, who pointed out that around 85% of their scholars identify at Black or Latinx and majority of them are the first in their family to go to college.

“The firsthand experience I got at Summer Academy of what it was like to be on actual college campus prepared me for living on my own and for college courses which were way different and more rigorous than the high school courses that I was taking at the time,” Mercedes said.

She is currently a resident counselor at the Summer Academy taking place at the University of Chicago, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the scholars.

A free service

A goal at Thrive Scholars is to prepare students for the college experience before they even step foot on campus. The program is completely free for the students, funded by individuals, corporations, and foundations.

The nonprofit works with students for six years, starting as juniors in high school through to their college graduation day. They fly them out to both summer academies, provide them with laptops, and provide them with a stipend throughout college.

In their sophomore year of college, students start the career pathway program. They pick a career they are interested in pursuing and Thrive Scholars pairs them with a coach in that industry. The coaches help the students learn the skills needed for their industries and connect them with major companies.

In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston issued a report titled “The Color of Wealth” that quantified just how bad the wealth gap is in Greater Boston. The findings, which are now being updated, cited at the time that the net worth of a typical white household in Greater Boston was $247,500, while the median net worth for Black households was just $8.

“There is no short-term solution to this,” Stein said about the racial inequities in the corporate world. “It has to be long term, and that is why we start in investing in students so early and stick with them,” he said. 

“We have these huge gaps in this country and we want to change that by being intentional,” Stein said. 

Mercedes was able to get an external communications internship at Fidelity Investments through her connections at Thrive Scholars. She believes that she got her full-time offer position at Sephora because of the opportunities the program provided.

Mercedes also reflected on the community that she got to build during her time as a Thrive Scholar. Her favorite memory as a Thrive Scholar was in 2017, when Stein brought her and her friends out for Starbucks one day.

“For me, that was so cool. Starbucks was not a part of my daily life, but Steve brought us, was cracking jokes, and was showing us an aspect of the everyday in college — getting coffee. That just sticks out to me,” she said. 

— Meera Raman is an ACBJ reporting intern

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