Leslie Coronel credits the Evanston Scholars program for helping her find a good match in a college. Her mentor will keep in touch for the next four years. Submitted Photo

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When Leslie Coronel leaves home for college on Aug. 24, she will be heading to a place that was beyond her imagination a year ago.

It was with the support of a non-profit organization called Evanston Scholars and its visionary founder, Steve Newman, that Leslie and nine other 2012 Evanston Township High School graduates approached their college search in a bold new way.

With encouragement, they overrode their default setting – the few schools they had heard of – and explored the larger world of post-high-school education.

Leslie and nine other talented minority students are the first “class” of Evanston Scholars. Mr. Newman launched the organization in 2011 in the belief that, when introduced to wider options, low-income and minority students with even average grades and scores would have a better chance of finding a college or university that aligns with their strengths and dreams.

Board member Elizabeth Krupkin says one Evanston Scholar just received a late response offering him a full ride to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he will attend a year of prep school at their expense and pursue his desire to play basketball.

The lucky few to be selected for the program – which has expanded to 17 for next year – will continue to reap its benefits through college. The organization is committed both to guiding students through the perilous college admissions process and to supporting them once they enroll.

Mr. Newman, a Golden Apple-winning English teacher at ETHS, started Evanston Scholars after watching too many of his academically capable minority students either fail to apply to or drop out of college before earning a degree. A national study shows 83 percent of high-income but just 34 percent of low-income students attend college.

A lack of resources (academic and family as well as financial), Mr. Newman says, frequently leads such students to opt for an institution that is not a good fit – one that fails to match their abilities, expand on their interests or offer a culture that will foster their success.

Leslie’s story is perhaps the class’s most dramatic. A year ago she had hardly heard of Amherst College; now she is about to begin her freshman year at the competitive East Coast school. In fact, all 10 of the 2011-12 Evanston Scholars will enter college this fall, each with a mentor back home to turn to.

Despite impressive grades and test scores – and the fact that she says she has “always thought about [her] future” – Leslie, like the other Evanston Scholars, had a limited view of her possibilities.

She was born in Chicago to Mexican immigrants from a small town in the state of Michoacan. Leslie says her parents, like many newcomers, “knew they wanted me to go to college, but they don’t know what it takes.”

The oldest of four children, Leslie moved with her family to Evanston and Oakton School when she was 8. At Chute Middle School she met Maritza Navarrete, who she says “was always into her school work” and who later became her best friend and role model.

The duo enrolled in the rigorous ETHS “chem-phys” program and studied hard. Junior year, Leslie got an email from Hilda Raisner, her sophomore English teacher, suggesting she look into a new program: Evanston Scholars. By early June Leslie had applied, interviewed with the board and been accepted.

Meanwhile, Sanjuana Jaime had signed on as her mentor. A Glenview resident, Ms. Jaime heard about Evanston Scholars and Leslie from an ETHS teacher friend.

Having grown up in an immigrant family on the South Side of Chicago, Ms. Jaime was eager to mentor someone who, like her, had no parental expertise to count on. Though she earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering at Northwestern University, Ms. Jaime regrets she had no assistance along the way.

Summer 2011 was a busy time for the Evanston Scholars. They attended workshops on college essays, personal statements and interviews, then attended more workshops on revising and editing these documents.

By Sept. 5, 2011, they were to complete applications for five colleges they deemed appropriate for them individually.

Leslie was stumped for a fifth institution. Mr. Newman, whom she calls “my main man,” stepped in, she says, suggesting rigorous schools, such as Carleton and Amherst, formerly beyond her sights. Her mentor also spurred her on. Ms. Jaime says she pointed out that Leslie’s credentials exceeded those that sent her to Northwestern. She urged her mentee to aim high.

The exhausting application process (during which Leslie attended classes full time and worked 30 hours a week at Panera) culminated in an Onsite Admissions Forum on Oct. 25. The event was held jointly with Chicago Scholars, on which Mr. Newman modeled his Evanston organization. More than 50 colleges and universities sent representatives. Some of the Evanston Scholars were accepted on the spot. Leslie had to wait.

Meanwhile, Mr. Newman was a constant email presence to the Scholars, says Leslie – “helping with logistics,” offering sessions on financial aid and campus social life, emphasizing deadlines and the need to keep grades up.

In April Leslie learned that out of 17 ETHS students who had applied to Amherst, only she and Navarrete (who will attend Vanderbilt University) were accepted.

The college offered Leslie a full ride and flew her to the campus. “I loved it,” she says. She was struck by the advantages of its small classes for someone who, like her, “needs a lot of clarity and asks a lot of questions.” She realized the huge lecture classes at the University of Illinois/Champaign, her former choice, would not have fit her learning style.

Buoyed by an introduction to enthusiastic Amherst alumnus Chuck Lewis and Facebook contact with an acquaintance of Ms. Krupkin, Leslie is excited to drive to Amherst with her family. “I know they’ll feel better when they see it,” she says.

Leslie credits Mr. Newman and the Evanston Scholars program for their crucial role in her landing at such a selective school. “If it weren’t for Mr. Newman, I wouldn’t be looking forward to next year so much,” she says.