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Preparatory program offers Boston youth a second chance to succeed

Prince Kalu beamed with joy, unable to stifle his ear-to-ear smile. It was early June and he was reflecting on his life-changing experience in Northeastern University’s Foundation Year program, which helps Boston high school graduates prepare for college success.

“I owe everything I have to this program,” said Kalu, who received a standing ovation from the throng of people who had gathered in the Fenway Center to celebrate Foundation Year’s five-year anniversary. “It gave me a second chance to succeed.”

And he’s not alone: Eighty-five percent of Foundation Year’s nearly 350 students have completed the program since 2009, when it was founded by President Joseph E. Aoun in close collaboration with then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and many have gone on to earn degrees from prestigious institutions, including Northeastern and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Students often begin with checkered academic pasts,” says John Wolfe, an associate teaching professor in the program, “but they have a deep determination that’s both moving and energizing.”

‘Gaining a foothold in academic life’

Three-quarters of the program’s students are black and Latino, the two populations with the lowest college-persistence rates, and the vast majority of enrollees qualify for a combination of federal grants, state financial aid, and scholarships.

Students are held to high expectations, taking classes on a 9-to-5 schedule Monday through Friday. They study math, English, history, sociology, and psychology, with electives in a business, science, or liberal arts track, and earn up to 43 hours of college credit in one year.

After completing the program, students are eligible to transfer their first-year college credit to another university. Those who are admitted to Northeastern’s full-time undergraduate day program are awarded full-tuition scholarships.

“If programs like Foundation Year existed all around the country, we are confident there would be millions more students like ours, not only gaining a foothold in academic life, but also going on to succeed,” says program director Molly Dugan. “We’d be well on our way to solving the national crisis in college persistence among young black, Latino, low-income, and first-generation students.”

From Nigeria to Northeastern

Kalu was born in Nigeria and then moved to the U.S. in 2008, making the 5,300-mile journey from West Africa to Boston when he was 16. “My parents sold everything they had to bring me to this country,” he says, “and I wanted to pay them back.”

Kalu got off to a good start, graduating from Dorchester Academy in 2010 and then enrolling in Foundation Year in 2011, but academic success in the program did not come easy—at least not initially. He failed exams, he said, and was admonished by his adviser for acting out in class. Then tragedy struck. His parents, who had stayed behind in Nigeria, died within three months of each other.

Kalu questioned whether he could continue the program and considered returning to Nigeria, where his sisters lived. But then Foundation Year stepped up. Peter Plourde, a math instructor in the program, spoke at his father’s wake and assured Kalu that he would not be left behind.

“Peter made me feel like I was his own son,” says Kalu, recalling Plourde’s remarks. “He made me feel like I was not alone, that Northeastern believed in me, that the faculty and my peers believed in me.”

Meanwhile, Kalu’s disciplinary meeting with his adviser compelled him to regain his academic focus. Kalu resolved to finish in the top 10 in his class—and then ended up finishing in the top five.

He spent the next three years working even harder, eventually earning two degrees from Northeastern—his Bachelor of Science in Business Management in 2014 and his Master of Science in Sports Leadership in 2015.

Today Kalu is the first person in his family to graduate from college. “It means everything to me,” he says. “It means there’s hope. It means that anything is possible with hard work and dedication and perseverance.”

‘Buckle down and rise to the top’

Kalu’s post-high school choices were slim. If it had not been for Foundation Year, he says, he would have returned to Nigeria or looked for a job in the service industry. Lynnett Perez, who completed the program in 2013, would have likely enrolled in community college. Instead, she is now a third-year illustration major at Montserrat College of Art, which is located on Massachusetts’ North Shore.

“Don’t ignore your second chance,” Perez says. “Buckle down and rise to the top.” Photo by Julio Chuy.

“Don’t ignore your second chance,” Perez says. “Buckle down and rise to the top.” Photo by Julio Chuy.

Perez, who grew up in South Boston and attended the Roxbury-based John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, viewed Foundation Year as her opportunity to improve her high school transcript before applying to college. “I was not happy with my GPA when I graduated from high school,” she says. “I saw Foundation Year as my chance to boost my grades but also as a place where teachers were really supportive and willing to push me to get me back on the road to success.”

Perez worked hard, managed her time well, and earned a 3.8 GPA, nearly doubling her high school average. She particularly enjoyed the program’s 1:8 teacher-pupil ratio and the small class sizes, which averaged 20 students. “I learned how to talk with people, to speak up in class, and that has helped me so much at Montserrat,” Perez says, reflecting on the program’s impact on her academic success. “Anyone who thinks Foundation Year isn’t college is wrong. It’s an intensive college program.”

Her most salient piece of advice for anyone who’s hit a bump in the road? “Don’t ignore your second chance. Buckle down and rise to the top.”

The future

Both Kalu and Perez have lofty ambitions. Kalu—who is currently working for Granite Telecommunications, the Quincy, Massachusetts-based telecom services reseller—wants to parlay his master’s in sports leadership into a front-office job in the NBA or NFL. “That would be a dream come true,” Kalu says, “but right now I’m still working on what it takes to be a hardworking, understanding, self-sufficient leader.”

Perez, for her part, wants to illustrate children’s books. “I like writing stories and creating things that make people happy,” says Perez, whose favorite story in the genre is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “Maybe my work would inspire children to become artists too.”

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