These students weren't headed to a state university or, for that matter, anywhere beyond Hartford.
But now they are college kids home for the holiday, an unexpected gift for us all.
What made this happen was a forget-the-way-we-do-things moment: Eastern Connecticut State University took a chance on nine Hartford Public High School students last August, bringing them to live on campus for a shot at college.
They lived on campus and participated in all activities. They took one course at Eastern and the rest of their classes at nearby Quinebaug Valley Community College.
Now, seven of the nine have completed enough remedial work to enter Eastern. The remaining two hope to join them next year.
What these young men and women had was a glimmer of something more, but not in SAT scores or outstanding grades. Their promise was in what matters: the heart.
I told you about this gamble back in August, when Eastern President Elsa Nunez now admits she was "terrified" about what she had done. She opened the doors to nine students who had no business showing up at Eastern, a school that fancies itself the small liberal arts college of the state university system.
Nobody, most definitely not nine teenagers from Hartford, is looking back.
"I came here and I just decided I wanted to prove to myself to see if I could do it," Ismael Garcia said when I went out to Willimantic to visit not long ago. "The opportunity to open the door — you don't get this opportunity every day. Where we come from in Hartford, a lot of people doubt us."
Garcia is one of seven of the nine who are coming home as bona fide college students. They are back with stories about what it's like to share a dormitory room with someone who looks totally different from you, what it is like to take a college class for the first time — or to hang in the dorm talking with new friends.
"In high school, they treat you like a kid," Garcia explained to me. "Here, it's up to you."
Garcia was headed, maybe, to community college. He's now president of his dorm at Eastern and full of ideas about the future, like becoming a graphic designer.
"Everything I've learned here, I take back home," Garcia told me. "It means a lot to be here. I am trying to get a better life."
The fall was filled with the unexpected. Nikaurus DeLaCruz found herself with a roommate from Rhode Island. Malcolm Wilson was going to be a diesel mechanic, but now is thinking about a business career.
"I really thought I wasn't going to make it to college," DeLaCruz said. "I wanted to prove to my mom that I could make it."
Another of the students, Keila Collado, told me she now realizes that too many young people in Hartford "think the world is shut down to them. They assume that they can't go to college."
Nunez, tired of watching failure, had this idea to find nine or 10 students from Hartford "with some kind of spark in their eye." She did this based on personal recommendations from guidance counselors at Hartford Public.
She found money from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to pay for their room and board. Nearby Quinebaug agreed to provide courses for the students to get them up to Eastern's standards. Each student had an adviser and a counselor.
To mark the end of the term, Nunez met for lunch with her Hartford students.
"They feel very empowered," she said. "Up until this meeting they never looked me in the eye. They all looked me in the eye at this meeting."
The lesson of the Hartford Nine is so simple I don't know why I always miss it.
To hell with what the world says.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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