By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

Collegiate Scholars has made me, for lack of a better word, a scholar: curious and engaged in the world around me.”
—André Washington
Collegiate Scholars alumnus

For André Washington, 2003 was the year that changed everything.

Then a sophomore at Kenwood Academy, Washington won a coveted spot along with other high-achieving public school students in the inaugural class of the Collegiate Scholars program at the University of Chicago.

He enrolled in college prep classes over three summers at UChicago, took up the flute, and learned how to navigate the world of college admissions and financial aid.

Now the 22-year-old is preparing to embark on a Fulbright fellowship to Paris, where he will study French flute technique and “Négritude”—a literary and ideological movement developed among black intellectuals in France in the 1930s.

“Collegiate Scholars has made me, for lack of a better word, a scholar: curious and engaged in the world around me,” says Washington, who graduated from the Eastman (N.Y.) School of Music this spring. “It has empowered me to be able to develop opinions and to clearly articulate them and defend them, and to take ownership of my life as a scholar and student of the world.”

The University began the Collegiate Scholars program to help remedy an overlooked problem—the failure of many high-achieving public school students to meet their potential after high school. Some lack the academic preparation to excel at the next level; others may not be aware of their options. Collegiate Scholars helps to fill the gap with three summers of free instruction from UChicago professors in mathematics, literature, science, social science, and writing, as well as a peer group that maintains the highest expectations.

The effort is starting to yield striking results. More than two-thirds of Collegiate Scholars enroll in selective colleges, including UChicago, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. All of the program’s students have enrolled in four-year colleges—a significant feat considering that many top public school students choose less demanding two-year programs.

“I am so proud of our first graduating class,” said Kim Ransom, the Collegiate Scholars’ founding director, during a June 22 reunion event. “It’s wonderful to see their dreams realized.”

Enriching Course Work Boosts Students’ Confidence

The need for the Collegiate Scholars program is great, says Ransom, who notes about 700 applicants vie for 45 spots each year. More than half of all Collegiate Scholars are first-generation college students, more than 80 percent are minorities, and a majority received free or reduced lunch in high school.

Many of the young scholars say the program introduces them to an academic culture that was difficult to find in their own high schools. In Chicago, only about one-third of the top-scoring public school students enroll in selective colleges.

“My gym teacher was my math teacher,” says Holly Hunter, a student at Howard University who attended Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School. Hunter credits the program for giving her “a sense of self, definite confidence, and motivation.” She’s planning for a career as a corporate lawyer.

Collegiate Scholars’ course work and enrichment focuses on three areas: advanced academics, top-tier college prep, and creative collaborations.

“The program gave me exposure to intellectual rigor,” said UChicago graduate Roderick Baker, 22. “I felt very confident sitting around the table my freshmen year in college.” Still, it’s a lot of work, says Baker, who is pursuing work as an accountant for a non-profit firm.

The path to success isn’t necessarily smooth, says Lauren Dunning, a Collegiate Scholar from the Chatham neighborhood who attended Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.

“It was extremely hard to enter high school and maintain my individuality,” Dunning said in a speech during his second year in the program. “I was pressured to conform into a typical high school student by my peers and even my mentors. These people viewed being different as a threat and advised me against it."

A rising second-year, Dunning is studying biological sciences at UChicago.

’It Opened My World to Me’

The Chicago Public School students chosen as Collegiate Scholars share more than excellent grades, impressive extracurricular activities, and enthusiastic teacher recommendations. “It’s goes far beyond all that—our young people all have something exceptional, something that shines bright, and makes them stand out from the crowd," Ransom says.

Collegiate Scholars “was a window into lots of different ways of seeing myself,” says Langston Wesley, 21, a philosophy major at Stanford who attended Morgan Park High School. “It opened my world to me.”

For Embassie Susberry, the head start meant graduating from Whitney Young High School a year early. In 2009, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana and has already completed her first year of law school at UChicago.

“I really got a chance to see what I wanted to do—and what I didn’t want to do, before college,” Susberry says.

Joseph Matuch, another member of the inaugural class, is devoting his career to giving back to kids like himself. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana, Matuch is now working toward a master's degree in urban education at National-Louis University.

“I want to teach at a ‘turnaround’ school,” he says. “Setting expectations for every student, so that they can achieve great things.”

Originally published on July 6, 2010.