Torch scholars deliver on NU’s hope in them

Odalis Polanco will graduate today from Northeastern University. Odalis Polanco will graduate today from Northeastern University. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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Sitting at the small blue table in his Northeastern University dorm room, Odalis Polanco could not help but marvel at how the collision of chance and choice shaped his life.

There was the vacation that turned into an unexpected migration from the Dominican Republic. An adolescence spent in the family’s single room in Jamaica Plain. An academic career that started in a high school program for students who did not speak English and now culminating with a bachelor’s degree, because Northeastern took a chance on him and 10 others who were the most unlikely of graduates.

Polanco and the other students arrived at Northeastern five years ago without benefit of private schools or wealthy suburban districts, and they did not have the test scores to get into most colleges. They were low-income, first-generation college students from urban areas who battled adversity and won admission to an innovative program in no small part because of their fortitude.

Today, all 11 graduate.

As if to underscore this cosmic mixing of chance and choice, thumb-tacked to Polanco’s dorm room wall was this quote by William Jennings Bryan:

“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.’’

The 11 students formed the inaugural class of the Torch scholarship, which covers all of the students’ expenses in the program that rewards the potential for success instead of high academic achievements.

“Torch looks at those students who fall through the cracks in their high schools and says, ‘Let’s look at those nontraditional variables,’ ’’ said program director Jana McCarthy. “. . .These students are rent contributors at home. They are translators. They manage their families. They’re child care providers for their families.’’

Polanco said he felt compelled to step in and be the man of the house after his family immigrated in 2001. His mother escaped a troubled marriage by moving to the United States, and the family had nothing. She worked four cleaning jobs, and the chemicals often made her ill. A day could pass when he and his sister would not see her as she rushed from one job to the next. They would awaken to breakfast, but she would be gone. They would come home to dinner but no mother.

“We had to worry about things that I never had to worry about, like food’’ when they were still in the Dominican Republic, he said. “You live here, but you don’t know who’s living next door. Over there, you know the whole neighborhood. You take care of each other.’’

Polanco worked part-time jobs moving furniture, stocking grocery store shelves, and shoveling snow to help support his mother and sister. And to avoid the rougher edges of his Egleston Square neighborhood, he played baseball and joined school clubs.

College was something he never really thought about until his junior year of high school when he spent the weekend at Boston College for a preview of campus life. After that, college became a self-imposed requirement. He transferred out of the program for English learners and started taking honors and advanced placement courses.

“My dictionary was my best friend,’’ he recalled. “I went home and took my time. There were nights I didn’t sleep or slept very little.’’

But, he said, his scores on college entrance exams were horrible.

“My English score, I bombed,’’ he said. “That’s where this program comes in.’’

Torch Scholars, underwritten by donors, are mostly students of color who come from 10 states and 11 countries. They start college at an academic deficit (SAT scores about 270 points below their freshmen peers) and without the support system in place at home to help navigate the complexities of higher education. They made it out of high school because of personal drive, often identifying one person to stand by them.

At Northeastern, Torch Scholars receive one-on-one attention from program administrators, mentors as well as each other.

“I love the fact that Torch is something of a community,’’ Tyrene Soler said after bumping into Polanco in the elevator of their West Village dorm. Soler is a member of the community service organization Polanco started, DRYVE (Distributing Resources to Youth through Volunteer Efforts), that raises money to build schools in Latin America.

Soler just finished her freshman year. She worked 30 hours a week to pay her tuition at a Catholic high school and sometimes wouldn’t get home until after 1 a.m. on school nights.

She will be at today’s graduation to cheer on her fellow Torchies but will do so with conflicted emotions: happiness at their success, but sadness that members of her Northeastern family are leaving.

There are 44 students in the program. So far, 87 percent of students who have started in Torch are still at Northeastern. Torch Scholars catch up with their peers academically, too. In the past four years, the average freshman GPA is 2.9. Polanco, whose degree is in international business and accounting, graduates with a 3.1.

“We’ve learned that emotional readiness is one of the biggest things for low-income, first generation students,’’ McCarthy said adding that students must be adaptable, introspective, and open-minded.

Students must be nominated for the scholarship, chosen from about 500 applicants annually. Fifty finalists participate in an intense daylong interview that includes a simulated lecture as well as group and individual interviews with faculty and staff.

Six of this first class of 11 have already been accepted to graduate school or secured jobs in these sour economic times.

“We have our own different stories, but I think we all have the same qualities and backgrounds,’’ said Besa Beja, who will work for Johnson & Johnson in Silicon Valley after graduation. “Figuring out things on our own and fighting for what we wanted . . . that made our bond even stronger because we were able to understand each other on a different level.’’

Like Polanco, she spoke no English when her family immigrated about a decade ago, fleeing Albania to escape political conflict. Like Beja, Polanco already has a job lined up. He will work in accounting at MathWorks in Natick.

As Polanco walked through his bare dorm room the day he turned in the keys, there was little separating him from a typical Northeastern student. Takeout menus clung to the fridge. Trash overflowed from the bin. And a sense of nostalgia and expectation filled his heart as the next chapter in his journey begins.