I started Soar with the hypothesis that Metro Atlanta has talented high performing students, many first generation and low-income, that were not connecting to peer institutions that could alter the trajectory of their lives and future. In the Spring of 2014, the Soar team met with nearly 100 students that attended 5 different high schools in Atlanta, Gwinnett, and DeKalb, and several after school programs. This was the first introduction for many to private liberal arts colleges, especially colleges in places many had never heard of before, like Claremont, CA, Colorado Springs, CO, or Poughkeepsie, NY. Soar provided a door to another type of collegiate experience and journey they could take, if accepted, at liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Pomona, or Swarthmore.
The colleges were approached because they offer a suite of support services available for students that have ethnic, financial, first generation, cultural, or social disadvantages. Soar colleges stood out because they were highly competitive but had made more than a verbal commitment to increase diversity on their campuses. These colleges meet up to 100% of a student’s financial need, several with no loans included in the financial aid package. To a student from Southeast Atlanta or Southwest DeKalb with little money, the right financial aid package is the difference between going to college or not. They also provide a trust based environment that has no boundaries on how far you can take your ideas, passions, and learning.
An advantage that Soar colleges offer Atlanta’s students that we work with is the look at the whole student in the application process. ACT/SAT scores are considered but not a primary factor in acceptance decisions. This overcomes Soar student’s second greatest concern after money, their ACT/SAT scores, which disadvantaged and African American youth have historically underperformed their more affluent and White peers. Their entire body of work, that includes classes, grades, extracurriculars, and essays matter more than the ACT/SAT scores. Pitzer College is test optional and doesn’t require students to send test scores. Students really are more than a score at these colleges.
Soar’s typical students have been impacted and supported by their school counselors, College Advising Corps, Project GRAD, Communities In Schools of Atlanta, GSU Early College, and others that have their future in mind. Soar students opt-in, which is they choose to participate if our colleges meet their individual needs for financial aid, location, networking/internships, and diverse academic opportunities. Soar adds capacity to these organizations to mentor those students that are college bound to fully explore all the paths that could alter their future trajectory.
In the Fall of 2014, our first two students ventured to Amherst College and Pitzer College, both receiving over $57,000 each in annual financial aid from the colleges plus an additional $5,500 from Pell. The 20 new seniors we are working with who will walk onto college campuses in the Fall of 2015 have overcome much, just like their predecessors. All have faced some challenge that would break many; bullying, death, abuse, neglect, sexual assault, poverty, abandonment, feeling voiceless, immigration challenges, parent incarceration, depression, and/or homelessness with many experiencing a combination of these. But despite all that, their eyes, hearts, and minds are focused on a future that will benefit themselves and those around them. Soar assumed the role of guiding them to paths that could take them beyond what they’ve imagined.
Another characteristic of Soar’ students is that they are unfortunately not selected by Posse, Gates, Coca Cola, or Questbridge. They are in the top 20% of their class and maintains an 85.00 gpa or higher. Many were semifinalist and even a few were finalist in these programs, but were not selected. The lack of selection was not an indication of their capability but the preferences of the individuals and organizations doing the selecting. It was always hard for me to see so many talented young people not get that chance that could change their lives in ways unimaginable. Soar is an additional pathway for Atlanta’s talented students to follow, in concert with other efforts, to reach beyond their dreams.
I have had an ulterior motive in all of this. First was to be a mentor as I was mentored when I was their age. Secondly, it was to go one step beyond college by preparing leaders that can navigate the halls of influence for tomorrow. Young leaders that are guided by the heart and mind. Future professionals who will become senators and congressional representatives that make and change laws that insure the doors they passed through will always be open to those coming behind them. I look forward to seeing Terriyonna, Naajia, and the ones that come after them walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, acknowledged as Fulbright, Rhodes, and other scholars. I look forward to when they are unleashed on an constantly changing world that is in need of a new breed of change makers.
Recently one young man asked me what Soar stood for, expecting some acronym attached to each letter. I shared the Webster Dictionary definition - to ascend to a higher or more exalted level as what we stand for. Soar’s mentors Atlanta’s talented and high performing students take off to reach higher and more exalted levels. In 2015, we hope to guide even more to reach their maximum potential.
William H. Teasley, Director
A blog for those working to refine the college access pipeline, create more opportunities to nurture future change agents, and mitigate the gaps.