By graduating from college, Angel Cardenas and Sarah Williams defied some dismal national statistics. They are among just 55% of all students who enroll in college to go on to graduate – and among only 23% of low-income students who finish.

The two Evanston Township High School alums are quick to admit that they did not make it on their own. Both profited from the comprehensive and individualized support offered by an organization called Evanston Scholars. For eight years, ES has worked to improve college access and success for students like Angel and Sarah.

The results can be dramatic. “[Evanston Scholars] changed my life,” Angel says. He earned a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Iowa in 2018. Four months after graduation, he put his learning to use at a job at Grainger.

Sarah took just three years to graduate in 2018 from the University of Minnesota in retail merchandising. She is working at an event-planning company related to her dream job: coordinating fashion shows.

 Once chosen for the program, Scholars can count on a team of specialized staff and volunteers to guide them on their journey from junior year at ETHS to college graduation and, often, to the launch of their careers.

 Including the group of rising juniors named to this year’s “class,” Evanston Scholars has helped more than 200 youth since its founding in 2011. Steve Newman, a Golden Apple Award-winning former ETHS teacher, is now full-time Executive Director of the Scholars program he founded. He says the idea for the organization came as he watched too many students like Angel and Sarah either fail to apply to college or drop out without a degree. They tended to be ambitious students of color from low-income households where they would be the first to graduate from a four-year college. Some quit for lack of funds; others left because the school they chose was a bad fit for them academically, socially or financially.

Mr. Newman’s passion derives from his belief that “every kid should have a four-year college as an option. It is our moral imperative to give kids a chance to go to college.”

Frustrated by the “discrepancy in opportunity” he had witnessed and the limited help he could give students preparing for college, Mr. Newman began searching for a way to have a greater impact. He looked at programs that followed students for three years (two years of high school, one of college) but says he decided that working with them for six years (two of high school, four of college) “was the way to go.” In the end, he connected with the founder of Chicago Scholars and, liking what he saw, modeled the Evanston program on it.

Students discover Evanston Scholars in different ways. Angel’s parents heard about the organization at church; one of Sarah’s teachers recommended she apply.

Angel, the son of Mexican immigrants, says he approached his junior year at ETHS with a vague notion that he would go to college “somewhere local or go to Oakton” until, he says, Evanston Scholars “opened my eyes to the fact that anything is possible.”

Sarah, who had skipped a grade and described herself as a perpetual overachiever, knew she wanted to go to college, which she says set her apart from many of her fellow scholars. But she encountered bumps on the road to her diploma and says “Evanston Scholars made the journey so much easier.”

Each spring a selection committee comprised of the entire nine-member ES staff chooses from qualified sophomore applicants. The applicants must meet criteria that include a 2.7 minimum unweighted GPA and a demonstrated financial need. They are usually students of color and the first generation in their families to graduate from a four-year college. And they must demonstrate the organization’s five pillars of success – persistence, engagement, resourcefulness, responsibility and connectedness.

The committee accepted 40 Scholars this year but had to turn down some 25 more who “didn’t meet the criteria,” Mr. Newman says. He sees the Scholars class as a “mix of kids” who do not fit one profile. In choosing, he says, “We went with kids who needed the most support, given our limited resources.”

This summer, the Scholars will begin what Mr. Newman calls “building their academic identity,” participating in team-building activities, working on soft skills and meeting the mentors who are key to the program’s success. Mentors are college graduates who commit to helping one Scholar for four years. The organization holds special mentor training sessions and events where mentors and mentees can meet socially. A manual with notes on fostering relationships suggests mentors keep in touch with their mentees at least twice a month.

            Some Scholars, Sarah says, see their mentors as their best friend. Others resonate more with staff members. Such was the case with Angel, who felt comfortable calling a staff member for help with course selection and scheduling. He was grateful for the suggestion that he avoid taking too many engineering courses in one term.  

Junior and senior years, parents and Scholars attend group workshops on topics like college affordability and scholarships and resume and interview skills. There is personalized college and academic counseling. Junior year, Scholars take a once-a-week test-prep course that has been shown to increase SAT scores by an average of 110 points. Acceding to the notion that “there’s a game to it,” Sarah says the course “gives tips and strategies.”

Sarah’s mentor was a family friend, and early on, they met infrequently as mentor-mentee. But Sarah surprised herself her first semester of college. She says she “didn’t adjust well” to living far from family and being in a place so different from Evanston.

She came home from Minnesota nearly every weekend to a realization that “whether it be Scholars or mentors or board members, we share a lot.” Not only are “[Scholars] all first-generation or low-income or of color,” but as a class they are “really close. We have spent lots of time together. It’s comforting to know you have a close-knit family with many similarities to you.”

Therein may lie the secret to the success of Evanston Scholars. Everything they do is meant to build community. No one walks alone.