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New London - Since the College Access Program launched in 2011, 98 percent of its students - all New London residents - have enrolled in college, and 86 percent have persisted into their second year of higher education.
"These are all low-income, first-generation students," Chris Soto, the program's founder, said. "Statistics like that are unheard of."
But now the organization has changed its name to Higher Edge and has taken on a larger mission: guiding its students from senior year of high school through senior year of college. College completion, not just access, is the goal, Soto said.
The nonprofit, based at the First Hispanic Baptist Church on Redden Avenue, will host a rebranding celebration at 5:30 tonight in the Garde Arts Center gallery to highlight its evolution.
"When we started the CAP program, it was kind of a pilot program. We had to see what the success was going to be like and what the funding landscape was going to look like," said Soto, who serves as executive director. "It was very successful. Obviously, there was a big need in this community for community-based college access programming."
Higher Edge, as did CAP before it, works with high school juniors and seniors from low-income households, and those who will be the first in their families to attend college, and helps guide them through the process of choosing a college, applying for admission and securing financial aid, all free of charge to the student. The program serves students who attend New London High School and New London residents who attend Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School.
"One quote that I think sometimes encapsulates it is, 'Did you grow up in a household where college was a given or a dream?'" Soto said. "For a lot of our students, college is a dream, and so we encourage that it should be a given."
Stephanie Reymundi, a senior at New London High, applied to be part of Higher Edge after Soto spoke to her junior class. The thought of navigating the college application process on her own was daunting, she said.
"I would be the first one in my family to go to college, so I needed to find a way to get the help that I needed to be able to do what I want to do," Reymundi, 17, said.
During the fall semester of their senior year, high school students - six the first year, 22 the next and 36 this year - meet with a Higher Edge adviser once a week to work on applications, essays and interview preparation. During the spring semester, the focus shifts to financial aid and scholarships.
So far, Reymundi has applied to a half-dozen colleges and hopes to pursue a career in nursing. Reymundi said her older sister, who did not go to college, is now inspired to continue her own education.
"Seeing me do it makes her want to do it," she said. "If I can do something to help my brothers and sisters to do something, then I will. If I have to be the first one to do it, I will."
With the name change, the program will now be a resource for its students from their first application through college graduation. Students will begin in the college access program then move into a success program once enrolled.
"We know that we are getting kids to college, but the more important piece in my mind is how we are serving them once they are in college," Soto said.
Advisers from Higher Edge check in with students after their first month or so, send encouraging care packages around final exams and help students navigate whatever issues they encounter.
Higher Edge used to use the church's nonprofit status but it is now independent and employs four full-time advisors through an AmeriCorps VISTA grant and other grants. The organization's new nonprofit status allows it to raise its own funds.
Soto, who graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2003 and later worked in the academy's diversity office, said he first saw the need for the program after interning at the nonprofit College Visions in Providence while working on a master's degree in public administration from Brown University.
Soto said the organization hopes eventually to be able to serve "all the students that need to be served in New London."
"It's been a challenge, but it's been a good challenge," Soto said, "and we know what we are doing is working. We know that for a fact."