Desire, hard work, leadership — and a degree

Besa Beja moved to the United States from Albania with her family nine years ago, after their safety was threatened by the political instability there. She worked to help support her family and served as their translator, and participated in a variety of college-prep programs while earning a 3.4 GPA at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

Today, Beja — a business major and Dean’s List regular — is among the 11 students who make up the first graduating class of Torch Scholars, a unique group who, as freshmen, were described aptly in Northeastern’s alumni magazine:

“These are students who haven’t been dealt the best hands in life, yet they work very hard, have natural leadership abilities and display special reserves of perseverance. In short: Precisely the kind of student who has historically made Northeastern great.

That description speaks to the broader goal of the five-year-old Torch Scholars Program.

Torch identifies highly motivated first-generation students who have overcome significant obstacles and gives them a chance. It eliminates barriers to admission created by difficult life circumstances, and offers unprecedented educational opportunities, particularly in experiential learning and faculty and staff mentoring.

For Beja, those opportunities included study-abroad experiences in Japan and Italy, and three co-ops in her field of marketing. Beja has accepted a full-time position with one of her co-op employers, Johnson and Johnson, in California.

“The program gave me the opportunity to grow professionally and personally and that gave me great confidence,” said Beja. “I walk out of Northeastern as a very proud alumna.”

Philomena Mantella, senior vice president of enrollment management and student life, calls Torch “a bold and innovative new program that is well positioned to be a national model” for helping first-generation, low-income students enroll in college and graduate.

Torch’s first class boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, unheard of in programs that support first-generation college students, and the overall retention rate for five classes exceeds 90 percent.

One of Beja’s classmates, Odalis Polanco, explains the bond that moves Torch Scholars to achieve. “If I didn’t come to Northeastern as a Torch Scholar, I don’t think I’d be in college,” he said. “I feel so grateful because Northeastern was the only school that offered me everything from academic and financial support to many other resources. Torch really gives you so many opportunities and opens so many doors.”

The students were honored at a luncheon yesterday where family, friends, and Northeastern staff affiliated with the Torch program celebrated their impressive accomplishments. Actor, musician, and philanthropist, Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J,was the keynote speaker at the luncheon where he imparted words of inspiration and personal experience to guide the students as they set off into the real world.

Smith's speech followed remarks from Northeastern President Joseph Aoun, who expressed his pride in the succcess had by the inaugural class of Torch Scholars. Anthony Manganaro, E’67, whose family has been generous supporters of the program from its inception five years ago, also spoke to the soon-to-be-graduates, and announced his committment to continue to support the successful program and foster its growth.

Watch a photo slideshow from yesterday's luncheon.

The program receives nearly 500 nominations from across the country each year.Between 40 and 50 finalists undergo a lengthy process of interviews and rigorous academic and personality assessments to make the final selection of 10 or 11 scholars. Currently, the program includes students from urban and rural communities in 10 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 11 countries.
The sense of commitment felt by those who make it into the program translates into a strong community service bent. Torch requires each scholar to perform at least 100 hours of service a year, but many of the students exceed that.

Polanco partnered with other Torch Scholars to create the nonprofit group DRYVE (Distributing Resources through Youth Volunteer Efforts), which has rebuilt schools in the Dominican Republic, and provided kids in need with clothing and other supplies.

Nadia Alvarez, a psychology major who grew up in San Diego, will focus on a career in social work, inspired by her co-op at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Boston and by a Dialogue of Civilizations program on conflict resolution in Israel and Northern Ireland. She will be pursuing a master’s degree this fall in Boston College’s School of Social Work.

Polanco and Alvarez were named among Northeastern’s 100 Most Influential Seniors.

The program has also had a more personal impact on at least two members of this year’s class. When Alvarez attends Boston College, she will be joined there by her husband, Torch graduate Joseph Bordieri, a human services major also pursuing a master’s in social work.

The couple is set to wed this August in Bordieri’s hometown of Foxborough, Mass.