What Elsa Nunez still remembers is the mellifluous voice of a gentle professor at Montclair State College who would pause to comment while taking attendance.
Elsa Maria Nunez. What a lovely name.
Forty years later, she remembers this professor, a disabled veteran in a wheelchair, who so believed in the potential of a young Puerto Rican girl scared of college that he often invited her to study in his office, where she would do her work. Over time, her confidence grew.
Nunez is a college president now. She has never forgotten the immense life-changing power of somebody who believes in you.
Today, when thousands of students converge on her campus at Eastern Connecticut State University for the beginning of another year, Nunez will welcome nine very special new students to campus.
Among the incoming freshmen are these young men and women from Hartford who wouldn't be going to college if Nunez didn't insist, didn't remember that somebody has to start taking chances if we are going to change life for children in Hartford.
A year and a half ago, she thought to herself, "what if I recruit 10 students who are not admissible to Eastern, but there's some kind of spark in their eye?" Nunez eventually found nine students to take a chance on her idea — a small gamble in a city of thousands.
Even if they make it to college, the odds aren't good for minority students from the city. A few years ago, a study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that young Hispanic undergraduates were half as likely to finish college as their white counterparts.
"It's what I'm doing out of desperation," Nunez told me as we sat in her office at Eastern one morning this week. "People talk about it endlessly. I said I have an idea."
Nunez, whose job description is most definitely not social worker, decided to cut through the crap and begin this program by force of will. She had to raise the money and then she had to figure out how these students could go to Eastern, even though they lacked the grades to get in.
She found a couple of guidance counselors at Hartford Public High School who came up with a list of promising students who were not headed to college. She persuaded the Hartford Foundation and other private donors to contribute money, because they couldn't live on campus without somebody paying. With nearby Quinebaug Valley Community College, she worked out a plan in which the students would take a semester or two of remedial work before formally entering Eastern.
Although these Hartford kids weren't Eastern material, there was something about them. They completed high school in four years in a city where most students don't finish on time, if at all. Their guidance counselors saw something — a glowing ember of the possible.
The students will live in dorms, participate in all activities and take one Eastern course. With luck — and provided they do well in courses at Quinebaug — some or most of them will be admitted as full-time students at Eastern by the end of the school year.
"We are asking them to take a risk to come to college," said Nunez, who arrived at Eastern in 2007 from the University of Maine. "They are terrified. They don't know how to get out of Hartford. This is about getting them out."
If it works, if only even for some, "they can be an inspiration," Nunez said. "They will be able to tell their story to other kids. They will become role models."
When she meets with them, Nunez told me she will tell her new students that they received "the gift of a lifetime. Your lives will be changed forever. You are going to take this opportunity and graduate from Eastern."
And if they don't quite believe her, she might tell them about a girl named Elsa from Puerto Rico, the first in her family to go to college. She will explain to them how that woman has never, ever lost sight of the power of believing in someone.
Because Elsa is a college president today and she has not forgotten.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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