Empowering the Future | Alvernia Magazine


Karina Polanco admittedly struggled during her freshman year at Alvernia. Majoring in nursing, she was daunted by difficult coursework and the task of adjusting to college life.

She also was confronted with two labs during her first semester. Polanco never had a lab course as a student at a charter school in Reading, and found the work to be overwhelming. “I was freaking out,” Polanco said. “I was falling behind.”

Fortunately, she didn’t struggle for very long.

Supported by other members of her cohort and assisted by her faculty mentor and the university's Educational Planning Center, Polanco quickly got back on track.

By the end of her first semester she had a 3.95 grade point average. Now a sophomore, she is a member of Lambda Sigma Honor Society, and is confidently working toward graduation.

Polanco is one of the very first Alvernia Reading Collegiate Scholars, a group of students hailing from the City of Reading who graduated from high school and received full scholarships to attend the university.

Initiated in 2013, the innovative and ambitious Reading Collegiate Scholars Program (RCSP) works to give inner-city students an opportunity to rise above challenging circumstances by preparing them to attend and succeed at college.

Emily Butz, program coordinator for the college readiness portion of RCSP, said the program is good for students — and for the City of Reading.

“This will make Reading a better place and a place with greater opportunity,” Butz said.

The first group, or cohort, of five scholars enrolled at Alvernia in 2014, and another cohort of 10 began in 2015. All but one of the first group is enrolled this semester (with the outstanding scholar attending military bootcamp), and all members of the second cohort are adjusting well to college life.

Funded by donations from individuals, businesses and foundations, and also supported financially by Alvernia, the program is twofold.

Long before these students are accepted for admission at any college or university, they work with Alvernia students and/or a college advisor to prepare for the SATs, learn how to fill out admission applications, identify appropriate colleges and work on financial issues.

Teams of Alvernia students travel to Reading High School several days a week after school to provide guidance, direction and support. Reading High students also visit Alvernia in order to acclimate to campus life and be introduced to university academics.

PICTURED: Alvernia freshman Jebediah Walston works through a problem with one of the high school students in the college readiness program.

Cassandra Noray (pictured top, right), graduated from Reading High School in 2014 and received RCSP scholarship to attend Alvernia. She now mentors students at her former high school.

Working with students enables her to give back to the Collegiate Scholars program, and to provide hope and encouragement for those who may not believe college is possible for them.

“I went to school with these students and I understand what they’re going through,” said Noray, a healthcare science major and member of the Alvernia women’s tennis team. “It’s easy for me to relate to them, because I was right where they are now.”

Reading High students who participate in the RCSP are free to apply to any college they wish. Many seek admission to Alvernia in hopes of getting an RCSP-funded scholarship.

Juan Paula, a sophomore attending Alvernia as a Reading Collegiate Scholar, said the scholarship was huge for him.

“I always planned on going to college and I was confident that I would be accepted somewhere, but I always worried about being able to afford it,” Paula said. “I was happy and grateful to get that scholarship.”

Once students are accepted to Alvernia through the RCSP, the goal is to make sure they land on their feet, said David Myers, director of the O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Public Service, who works closely with students in the program.

“It’s not enough just to get them in,” Myers said. “The idea is to have them be successful.”

The RCSP replaces a former Alvernia initiative to enroll at-risk Reading High students in the university. The earlier program, Myers said, lacked the necessary supports for students and was not as successful as anticipated.

“We learned that we need to try to build a bridge underneath these students and make sure they have all the support they need,” Myers said.

To that end, all Reading Collegiate Scholars are assigned a faculty mentor, as well as a mentor from the community. They attend a program at Alvernia during the summer prior to their first semester, at which time they work on issues such as finances, conflict resolution, problem solving and self-advocacy. They also get an idea of what campus life is like, and learn their way around the university and how to use the library and media suite.

“That summer is important for students,” Myers said. “It’s a great help with the transition from high school to college.”

Syana Ortega, a sophomore at Alvernia who got involved with the Collegiate Scholars program through Reading High’s ROTC program, said the summer program gave her the confidence she needed to begin college.

“That summer bridge program taught me so much,” said Ortega, a psychology major who has a 4.0 GPA. “It taught me what I needed to know in case I had to seek help financially or academically, or even if I just wanted to know what was fun to do around campus.”

Dr. Adam Heinze, assistant professor of biology, has been involved as a faculty mentor since the RCSP began. The experience, he said, has been extremely rewarding.

“I’m very excited to be a small part of what’s going on here,” Heinze said. “It makes me proud to be an educator, to tell you the truth.”

Heinze works with members of the first cohort, and has been a tremendous help to students, including Polanco.

“You can tell that Adam really wants us to succeed,” Polanco said. “He asks us if there is anything holding us back from succeeding at the moment, and he’ll reach out to our professors if we’re having any issues he can help with.”

Having the assurance of an on-campus mentor was especially important to Polanco in her first semester.

“He really helped to ease my process into college last year,” she said.

Sarah Verneret is in her first year at Alvernia, and pleasantly surprised at the level of support she is getting as part of the RCSP.

She always wanted to go to college, she said, but had no idea how to navigate the complicated process of applying for admission and financial help, or even to imagine what college might be like.

“I expected that if I was able to go, college would be something difficult that I’d have to go through alone,” said Verneret, a communication major. “But I’m getting help, and I feel welcomed and empowered. With this program, I will be able to get an amazing education and serve my community.”

That, Myers said, is the ultimate goal of the Collegiate Scholars program.

“We need to create partnerships like this one between Reading and Alvernia,” Myers said “Hopefully, students will be successful here, and then stay in the community to use their skills and talents.”

Staying and working in her community sounds like a plan to Verneret.

“I’ve always been drawn to helping my community,” she said. “With the awesome support system I have here, I know I can achieve great things.”