Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Opportunity is alive and well in Utica, NY, where smart ambitious young people can reach for success no matter what their parents' income.
Eva Szymanska Mroczek was eight years old in 1993 when she arrived in Utica with her mom, two suitcases, and their dreams for a better life. Her mother had left everything behind in Poland hoping for educational opportunities for her daughter in the US. What they found was opportunity in abundance through the Young Scholars Liberty Partnership Program (YSLPP).
“I can completely attribute my entire career to Young Scholars,” Mroczek said. Now in her early 30s, her academic credentials, publications, and teaching positions fill several pages. After graduating from Proctor High School in 2004, she graduated from Utica College magna cum laude in 2008, and earned her Ph.D. in microbiology in 2013 from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Her passion for science started just before 7th grade when she attended the YSLPP summer session on the Utica College campus. As students still do today, she took math, science and English classes, went on field trips, and bonded with other YSLPP students five days a week for three weeks in July. There she got her first taste of the college environment and interacted with college professors. With their help, she created a winning science fair project.
“The Young Scholars staff saw potential in me and nurtured it,” she said. “And that fostered in me this love for science and research.”
A Treasured Community Asset
“Young Scholars is the gem of our community and the future of our community,” said Executive Director Pamela Matt. She enthusiastically describes YSLPP as more like a family than a program. A cooperative effort between Utica College, the Utica City School District, and the local community, YSLPP celebrates 25 years this year.
The program provides academic support through tutoring, SAT prep, special programs on the Utica College campus, college visits, and field trips. And it offers social and emotional support through mentoring, counseling, community service projects and plenty of positive peer activities. In recent years, YSLPP has expanded into arranging paid internships and professional life skills programs for its alumni who are now in college and the workforce.
Each year 6th-grade teachers nominate roughly 300 students in the Utica City Schools to apply for YSLLP. “We’re looking for students of promise who may, because of social and economic influences in their lives, not get through school and on to college and the workforce,” said Matt.
The challenging admission process involves an application, an essay, a transcript of good grades and attendance, and an interview. Parents must also attend an information night so they understand the commitment of participating in the program for the next six years. Then a committee composed of area business and education leaders makes the selections.
The $1,500 annual cost per student limits the number of spots to 70. Funded mainly by New York State’s Liberty Partnership Program, Matt has been able to expand funding during her 3-year tenure through the Community Foundation and individual donors raising the number of students they can serve from 55.
“What Young Scholars does is take students that you may not believe have extraordinary potential and they help foster it where others may write you off,” said Mroczek.
She recalls a painful conversation a few years after her arrival in Utica. She was translating for her mother and suddenly found herself translating the words, “She probably won’t go to college.”
“Because of my background as an immigrant, with a single mother and economic challenges, I was labeled. But Young Scholars saw that I had great potential and that I was willing to do the work. I loved studying but I needed to have that support system around me. Young Scholars provides the students with opportunity and then it’s up to the student to rise up to the challenge and work hard.”
Help Around Every Corner
Senator James H. Donovan and John F. Kennedy middle schools and Thomas R. Proctor High School each maintain a room set aside for YSLPP students. As part of the program’s requirements, students must visit the room at least twice a week, but Matt said, “As it turns out, our students are in there all the time.” There they find YSLPP staff members, many of whom are graduate students in education at Utica College, always ready to help with tutoring, counseling, college applications, and more. The college students are often from backgrounds similar to the Young Scholars students’ serving as role models for what is possible.
“The students know we’ll listen to them,” Matt said. “They know we respect each one as a person, and they can go to our staff with anything.”
If students need more help, YSLPP offers a homework hotline staffed by Utica College work-study students. They proactively call each student every school evening to ask them if they have homework questions, even prodding students who may be reluctant to ask.
Young Scholars also provides an extensive SAT prep course taught by Hamilton College students at UC every Saturday from December until the test in May. Even days off from school are filled with college visits and career exploration with transportation supplied by YSLPP.
The program provides abundant opportunities for students to enjoy new experiences and rise to academic and professional success. But by all accounts, it’s the close personal relationships between staff members, the families and the students that stands out the most. Matt recalls a bus trip to Washington, DC, when she noticed a student crying. Before she could reach her, another student was already beside her offering comfort.
Beyond the emotional support of good friends, YSLPP also creates a culture of excellence that fosters success. “They’re just there for each other,” Matt said. “They’re there emotionally for each other but they’re also there to egg each other on to get better grades.”
The positive atmosphere in YSLPP extends to the students’ whole families. A parent advisory board meets quarterly to share parents’ feedback about the program and discuss opportunities for their kids. YSLPP hosts potlucks and picnics. And parents are even able to take non-credit classes at Utica College.
YSLPP leaves no resource untapped. In addition to tutors, counselors, peers and parents, each student is also matched with a mentor to provide even more opportunities to grow.
Mroczek, now working for the program, sees how this environment still affects the students. “I see so much of myself in them. I get so excited and passionate about my work when I see them winning and overcoming challenges because of this program. It changes the trajectory of your life completely. It impacts each student and then impacts the whole family’s lives with first-generation high school and college graduates, even M.D.s and Ph.D.s. It changes the whole dynamic of their family and their neighborhood.”
“The students understand what an amazing opportunity this is and what a loss it would be to waste it,” Mroczek said. “They know they have to work as hard as they can to make the program proud of their investment in them. Then it completely changes their lives. They’re so grateful they want to come back and contribute to the program as mentors, volunteers, and donors.”
From the program’s inception, the goal has been to help its students graduate from high school. Now they not only graduate at a rate of 94%, but 86% have gone on to college. With the Utica College Promise offering automatic admission to YSLPP graduates with an advanced Regents diploma, many attend UC. But several go on to Hamilton, Colgate, SUNY Poly, Columbia, Harvard, Yale and many others.
Extending Even Further
Still, Matt recognized there was more YSLPP could do for their graduates after they went to college or joined the workforce. Often they called the office with questions. So she conceived a new program that began in January 2018. Funded by a two-year grant from The Community Foundation, the Young Scholars Graduate Leadership Program offers lectures on personal, professional, and financial leadership, and teaches practical skills like elevator pitches, networking, and resumes. They also host networking events with community leaders and are working with local organizations like Leadership Mohawk Valley, Genesis Group, and Oneida County Tourism to create events that will benefit the 40 students who can participate each year.
Matt and the YSLPP staff hope to grow their own big dreams of developing well-educated young professionals who want to stay in the Mohawk Valley and build a vibrant future for the local community.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect choice to lead this new endeavor as Coordinator than Mroczek. Though she had many options after she earned her Ph.D., she chose to return to Utica. In addition to this opportunity to impact current YSLPP students’ lives, she's also an adjunct professor at her alma mater Utica College.
“When I was given the opportunity to come back and teach with Young Scholars, I thought what an amazing way for me to give back now for what was given to me. I cannot imagine a better way to go on. I see so much of myself in those students. I’m so excited for the future they will have and I get to be a little part of that. I am here because of the Young Scholars program and I get to do that for somebody else.”
She has set high goals for the new program. “I want them to graduate with their degree and get their first job. I don’t want them to sell themselves short. I want them to have the confidence to know that they are mentally, physically, emotionally, and academically prepared to be whoever they want to be.”
Building the Future Mohawk Valley
Mroczek plans to stay in the Utica area long term. “This is home!” she said. “It’s that whole sense of community. The people here were so welcoming and supportive to us. Our diversity is our strength. That true sincerity of caring and wanting to connect with people to help and support them and to be happy when they succeed and to cheer them on even with complete strangers. That is a very Utica thing. You don’t get that in many communities. This is why students want to stay in this area because they have become introduced into that culture.”
YSLPP has helped more than 1,165 Utica students achieve their dreams over the past 25 years and 68% of them have chosen to live and work in the Mohawk Valley. Matt attributes this in part to the program’s strong emphasis on community service. Middle schoolers are required to complete 15 hours while high schoolers contribute 30 hours each year. They have participated in several fundraising walks, collected donations for veterans care packages, and raised awareness and funds for domestic violence prevention among many other projects.
The title of YSLPP’s annual dinner is Grow Big Dreams, and Matt said, “I truly believe that’s what we do. These students are the future leaders of the Mohawk Valley.”
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of ACCENT Monthly, a publication of the Utica (NY) Observer-Dispatch.