Dream Weavers: Kaplan Foundation Allows Underserved Community College Students to Achieve Their Higher Education Goals through Its Leadership and Scholarship Programs

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After Hamissou Samari's mother passed away in Togo, he immigrated to the United States at age 23 with big dreams but never imagined he would be accepted to an institution like Harvard University.

"For me it was totally unrealistic to even think about it," says the former shoe salesman. His parents were illiterate, and his father passed away three weeks shy of Samari's seventh birthday.

The infinite possibilities for his life became apparent five years ago after Samari, then a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was accepted into a Kaplan Foundation scholarship and leadership program for nontraditional students enrolled in community colleges. Last year, Samari graduated from American University with a bachelor's in international studies, and this fall he starts work on his master's in public policy at Harvard.

"This drive, this determination I got is because of Kaplan," says Samari. "Kaplan told me there is nothing that I want to do that I won't be able to do."

His introduction to Kaplan came when his community college adviser recommended Samari, who was excelling in his studies, for the Kaplan Educational Foundation's Leadership Program. He along with three other students formed the program's first cohort five years ago.

"If you're an adult learner or you're in community college, there's not a lot of charitable support and yet those students tend to be tremendously needy," says foundation chairwoman Melissa Mack.

Designed for underserved community college students in New York, the comprehensive, first-of-its-kind program provides the scholars with money to cover tuition and living expenses, personalized tutoring, mentorship, and workshops on networking, transferring to four-year schools and getting the most financial aid, among other topics.

For Rosa Frias, who emigrated from Colombia two and a half years ago, Kaplan's workshops are its most helpful services.

"Since I came here, I didn't have a lot of information about how the schools actually work, so this is one of the best things I can get from the program," says the 19-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., resident.

During the second year of their associate degree, the students can receive up to $3,000 in scholarship money, and for their bachelor's they can get up to $20,000 toward tuition. Before doling out scholarship money, however, program officials ensure that the scholars exhaust other financial aid resources. Samari, for example, graduated from American University free of student loans.

Kaplan also assesses each scholar's living costs in the second year of his or her associate degree and provides stipends according to need.

When the foundation's board and the leadership program's developers were in the planning stages, they looked at the article "Bridges or Barriers?" in the November 2004 issue of the magazine Change to assess the needs of underserved community college students. Jennifer Benn, the program's director, says taking financial concerns off the table helped the scholars focus on getting more out of the program.

"It became clear early on that our students were working many hours to support themselves and by doing that they were not going to be able to fully participate in our program and take full advantage of our program, so we instituted a living stipend and a requirement that they work no more than 15 hours a week," says Benn.

Because the Kaplan Leadership Program has served just 29 scholars to date, it's easy to make changes to deal with students' unique needs.

For Bolaji lames of the first class, the transportation stipend--a monthly metro pass--sold him on the program. The free laptop and added scholarship money was more than he expected. James, now an alumnus of Morehouse College, recently started a demanding job as a broker manager in retail development at Colgate-Palmolive. …