This article from our inaugural issue of the CH-CH Chronicle follows three inspirational members of the Class of 2016. They are each in the middle of their freshman year at college, where their drive to excel continues:
Nelson Andrade ‘16 vividly remembers the moment he decided that he would be the first in his family to attend college. It was fourth grade, and he was sitting at the little table in the middle of his Newark, NJ, living room, working on his homework.
Normally, homework was a breeze for Nelson, but on this day, he was stumped by a math problem. Nelson’s mom stepped in to see if she could help, but with less than a high school education, she could not figure it out, either.
When he looked at the problem with new eyes, the solution finally came to Nelson. With proud tears on her cheeks, Nelson’s mom – a native of Ecuador – said the words that would transform his future:
“Eres muy inteligente. Se puede asistir a la universidad.”
“You are so smart. You can go to college.”
Nelson responded: “I’ll go to college for you.”
He kept his promise, and the now 18-year-old Nelson – a 2016 Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall graduate – enters Bowdoin College in Maine as a freshman on a full academic scholarship. This is no small feat: in Nelson’s family, earning a high school diploma is a serious accomplishment, let alone with honors from an independent college preparatory school.
Equally inspiring are the journeys of Nelson’s classmates Stephanie Andrade ‘16 (his cousin) and Dana Marecheau ‘16 – both of whom credit CH-CH and the access programs that opened the doors to the boarding school experience. Nelson and Stephanie entered CH-CH as freshmen through the Newark-based Wight Foundation, while Dana came in as a scholar of the A Better Chance (ABC) program. Both programs provide support and financial assistance to students to unlock their potential through independent school education.
Nelson, Stephanie, and Dana are three of the finest leaders in recent years at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, each off to great colleges after accomplished high school careers. It was clear to all of the teachers and advisors that these students possessed enormous potential as they made their vision of success a reality at CH-CH. Each of them credits the atmosphere at CH-CH for developing them not only as scholars – but people.
Growing up in a tough section of Brooklyn with her mother, who emigrated from Grenada, anxiety could be a daily occurrence for Dana Marecheau. For her senior presentation, Dana tearfully told her classmates the story about the time she heard gunshots outside of her house. Her mom was scheduled to be walking home and, unable to reach her by phone, Dana feared the worst.
Thankfully, her worst fears were not realized that afternoon, but the impact it left on Dana remains to this day.
Besides turmoil in the neighborhood, school could be difficult as well. Always more interested in academics than her classmates, Dana remembers a time in middle school when she went to the overhead projector in the front of the room to help a substitute teacher work a math problem for the class.
“No one was listening to me,” she recalls. “I was in the eighth grade, teaching a whole class. I realized, I don’t want to be in an environment where no one cares about their education.”
So Dana’s mom began searching for a program that could help her daughter attend an independent school. Dana became a scholar with A Better Chance – and eventually was accepted into Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall. She resolved to chart a new course and welcome every new experience and opportunity. She served as a resident assistant (RA) and led the Students of Color Alliance (SOCA), a campus diversity group.
“She had her hand in so many leadership roles on campus, it’s staggering,” says English teacher Benjamin Riggs, who worked closely with Dana as SOCA’s advisor.
Dana will no doubt become a campus leader at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where she is a freshman this fall. With a dream of eventually starting a nonprofit that helps other kids from tough neighborhoods find a home in great boarding schools, Dana will take as many business and entrepreneurship classes as she can in college.
“Being [at CH-CH], I understand the value of college, and I want to use college to give back to my community and those who want to strive to do the best they can but just don’t know how to.”
Teachers, advisers, and friends all used one word to describe Stephanie when she first arrived on campus from Newark: “quiet.” In fact, “silent” or “timid” might be better descriptors of a 14-year-old Stephanie.
Participation in class was always a challenge prior to arriving at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall. Often reticent to speak out loud, she would write her questions and comments to teachers in a notebook. Like her soon-to-be best friend Dana, Stephanie felt out of place socially and academically in her large, urban public school. Despite being a high academic achiever, she withdrew and remained quiet.
Not long after enrolling at CH-CH as a Wight Foundation scholar, Stephanie says she began to find comfort – and a voice. She settled right into dorm life, receiving mentorship and support from her resident assistant, Tonian Ortega ‘14, who helped her through those first few weeks. But Rhonda Auguste, executive director of the Wight Foundation, says she noticed an evolution taking place in Stephanie almost immediately.
“Within days of being in the new environment, she began speaking up, became more confident,” Auguste remembers. “I knew in my core that she needed to be in a different environment, where teachers challenge her and take her to the next level.”
One of those teachers was Benjamin Riggs, Stephanie’s English teacher. The two bonded over poetry during her junior and senior years, and Stephanie chose Mr. Riggs as the faculty advisor for her senior presentation: an original, interactive poem on the theme of silence. For an introvert like Stephanie, it certainly did not feel natural performing a deeply personal poem in front of all 170 students and dozens of faculty and staff. However, on the day of the presentation, she owned it. “It was my time to kind of speak my mind, to speak to everyone here – which I never really got to do,” Stephanie says. “I enjoyed being in the spotlight.”
Riggs remembered the Head of School Dr. Lance Conrad catching him as he left after the presentation: “That’s why we exist right there,” Riggs recalls him saying. “Look how far she was able to come in her time here.”
Her leadership on campus came in the form of paying forward the kindness she received from her supportive RAs – by becoming an RA herself and making the dorm transition a little easier for incoming girls.
“These girls, in a way, look up to us, and we are their older sisters,” Stephanie says. “We have to be there for them.”
This fall, Stephanie is attending Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she is receiving a full academic scholarship. She says she is not sure what she will study specifically, but she knows what she wants to be doing longterm: writing.
As a seventh grader, Nelson was unsure what his new home would be like. He could not envision how an independent school environment could build him as a student and a person — but several teachers, parents, and counselors around him could. They rallied around him to make it happen. For example, Wight Foundation scholars are required to complete a two-year preparation program – called the Student Training Enrichment Program, or STEP – before they can start boarding school. On the day that Nelson’s STEP application was due, a middle school guidance counselor who had been helping him through the process pulled him out of class and sent him to an empty computer lab to complete it.
Once he was accepted into STEP and began participating that summer – which focused on preparing the students for some of the cultural and learning differences they would encounter at boarding school – he was sold. “I started realizing I loved it,” he recalls.
“I really want to stress how well conditioned we became because of the Wight Foundation,” Nelson says. “We really can’t thank them enough.”
Teachers and staff say that after the positive presence that Nelson had over his four years at CH-CH, it will be difficult to imagine campus without him. He came in singularly focused on soccer – but left having excelled at scores of other co-curriculars – from lacrosse to wrestling to Ultimate Frisbee.
Much of his school leadership centered around mentoring and grooming younger and incoming students. He became a resident assistant because he says he wanted to “raise the profile” of the position in the dorms, inspired to do so by his experience as a freshman being welcomed and helped by an upperclassman in the dorm. And he did it all with a smile and a sense of humor.
“He’s one hundred percent invested in everything that we’re doing here; it’s infectious,” says Riggs.
Entering Bowdoin College on scholarship, Nelson says he’s going in with an open mind about his studies, but he still hopes to play soccer.
“College is just another opportunity to be at the pinnacle of my personal success,” he says, “not only for myself but for my family and what they’ve sacrificed for me.”
Rhonda Auguste of the Wight Foundation praises the progress made by both Nelson and Stephanie: “If you’d met them at 12 or 13, you’d be amazed at how far they’ve come – the confidence, the drive. It was already in them. Chapel Hill just helped support them to let it come out.”
It is almost so obvious that it does not need to be typed: Nelson, Dana, and Stephanie contributed as much to the CH-CH community as they received. Yes, the School and its foundation partners give a handful of students the opportunity to exchange their surroundings for a serene, welcoming academic environment, laser-focused on unlocking each student’s potential within. In turn, many of these students – including Nelson, Dana, and Stephanie – become “dynamic leaders on campus,” according to Director of Admissions Lisa Pelrine, one of the first to meet students as they enter CH-CH. Students from these programs offer a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, she adds, that “bring a real-life situation into the classroom at the high school level that you might not get until the college level or the workplace.”
The backgrounds of the students coming to CH-CH through access programs often become the fuel for their success. Dana says her story – after overcoming her initial fear to tell it – has given her a drive to keep striving, no matter what obstacles she faces. It is a characteristic that is easy to see in Stephanie and Nelson, too.
“I wouldn’t change where I grew up,” says Dana. “I wouldn’t redo that whole experience, because it allowed me to have something so close to my heart that I don’t think anyone will be able to take away from me.”
Steve Holt is a professional freelance journalist based in Boston.