Abel Diaz never imagined himself walking the centuries-old paths of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Growing up in Houston and coming from a low-income background, Yale seemed like another world. But Diaz has studied hard and excelled at Eastwood Academy High School, and Yale is exactly where he found himself earlier this summer, traveling with a group of 80 HISD students. The trip was coordinated through the district’s EMERGE program that aims to help high-performing, low-income students into Ivy League and Tier I colleges.
“It’s a beautiful place. I was awestruck, because it looked like they took the set of Harry Potter and put it down there,” Diaz said of the visit. But while Harry Potter’s Hogwarts might be a magical school in a fictional world, Yale is now more real than ever for Diaz and the other students participating in the EMERGE Institute. Now he’s looking to turn fantasy into reality, with hard work on his part and the support of EMERGE.
That’s why Diaz and dozens more rising HISD seniors traded a week of their summer break to stay in the Rice University dorms, eat in the dining hall, and spend most of their waking hours at Rice’s Jones School of Business. They attended seminars on college admissions and the financial aid process, honed their interview techniques, and practiced the finer points of personal statement writing, all under the watchful eye of Assistant Superintendent of College Readiness Rick Cruz and the EMERGE team.
Another participant, Maral Gaeeni of Carnegie Vanguard High School, said the week helped her focus and get a head start on the admissions process before starting a busy fall semester filled with AP classes. Gaeeni, who is considering studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, appreciated the time dedicated to essay writing and the help of EMERGE mentors. “There was one thing they gave us that was just phenomenal, a checklist for senior year and what you need to do every month, and I’m a checklist person, so when they gave me that, my mind was blown, because that’s perfect,” Gaeeni said.
Luis Melendez, a rising senior at East Early College High School who confessed to needing some “bugging” from his mom before committing to attend the week-long Institute, said that his time there had changed his perspective on the future. “There’s a lot more opportunity out there for me than I ever thought,” Melendez said during a brief break from crafting his personal statement with the help of EMERGE Academic Program Manager Victoria Chen. “I feel like I can go anywhere and I can do anything that I want to.”
That’s exactly the kind of lesson Cruz hopes the students take home from this week. “What we’re looking for, first and foremost, are kids who are extremely committed. We can’t help kids if they don’t really want this badly and aren’t willing to work really hard for it,” he said. “I hope they leave here with a renewed sense of possibility.”
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