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Balfour Academy celebrates three decades of success

This is the first summer in a decade that Meshel Clarke hasn’t spent at Balfour Academy, a program established in 1983 by Northeastern University to change the way students think about themselves and their futures.

“It sounds weird to say this, but Balfour Academy changed my life,” said Clarke, a student of the program who graduated from Northeastern this spring with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “This place is like family to me.”

All Balfour students spend every summer between sixth- and 12th-grade on Northeastern’s campus, returning twice a week during the school year to the program’s Cahners Hall facility for tutoring and mentoring. During college, Clarke worked for Balfour, providing the same mentoring and support she received for years.

This summer, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in education at Simmons College. Clarke wants to be an English teacher and, last week, joked with the Balfour program’s leaders — director Earl Stafford, BS’85, MPA’89, and clinical assistant professor of mathematics Carla Oblas — that she would return next summer as a teacher.

“Before I came to Balfour, I didn’t want to teach,” Clarke said. “But I saw the difference all my teachers had made and what I was able to do as an instructional assistant and knew it was the right path for me.”

In addition to helping students get accepted to college — and 90 percent of Balfour students do — the program offers an even bigger incentive. Any Balfour student who is accepted to Northeastern is rewarded with a full scholarship. This year, 43 Balfour alumni are enrolled as Northeastern students.

“Programs like this don’t usually last this long, and one reason I think we have is because of Northeastern’s dedication to these kids. We’ve proven that this is a program that works and is successful,” Oblas said.

In the first three years, Balfour students take classes in subjects such as English and math, which aim to prepare them for the next school year. Students entering the 10th, 11th and 12th grades take an SAT prep course and a college-level class taught by a Northeastern faculty member.

“It wasn’t just textbooks or busywork,” said 17-year-old Carla Forbes, a student of the program who this fall will begin her senior year at Newton North High School. “There is a great open dialogue of big ideas and real-world topics — not at all like the classes you get in high school.”

For students, Balfour Academy shapes new views of what the future might hold. Tsega Birkneh, a 17-year-old track star at Boston College High School in Dorchester, said he long thought he wanted to be a professional athlete. But now, in his sixth year of Balfour, he has dreams to study neuroscience and criminal justice at Northeastern.

“I want my future to rely on my mind, not my body,” Birkneh said. “Even if I could make it as a professional athlete, just one bad thing could happen and it would all be over. This helped me look at my future, at what I wanted to do, with much more thought.”

Students are quick to point out Balfour’s greatest asset: Stafford, who has worked with the program since 1984, when he was a co-op employee. (A group photo outside his office of that year’s students and staff shows Stafford in short athletic shorts. “I swear they were in style at the time,” he sighed.)

“Staff gives me such great insight about where I want to be in 10 years,” said 16-year-old Amanda Barrows, who this fall will begin her senior year at Brookline High. Before Balfour, she said, “I wasn’t thinking about college, about what I’d do after graduation. I was thinking about tomorrow.”