Students, community leaders taking to dance floor in support of Higher Edge college program

New London - A doctor, a teacher, a police officer, six high school students and others will dust off their dancing shoes at Connecticut College on Saturday night and cut some rug to benefit Higher Edge, a nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation students navigate the route to college.

The "Dancing for Degrees" fundraiser, styled to mirror the popular television show "Dancing with the Stars," will pair six community leaders - Tanya Collins, teacher at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School; Daryl Justin Finizio, mayor of New London; Susan Jones of accounting firm Hoyt, Filippetti, & Malaghan; Anthony Nolan, New London city councilor and police officer; Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center, and Claire Warren, founder of the Plainfield Walk-In Medical Center - with six Higher Edge students to perform a swing, salsa, bachata or merengue dance.

"At first we were concerned about whether we were going to get any students to do this and to put themselves out there. But the students who volunteered are all very excited about it," said Chris Soto, the founding director of Higher Edge. "Young people in general are like sponges. They can take whatever you throw at them - whether it's dance, education, a new job - they absorb it very quickly."

The 12 dancers have spent the last seven weeks learning the choreography and rehearsing with their partners, Soto said. The event will take place at Connecticut College's Crozier-Williams Student Center at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The dance routines have all been choreographed by Leo Navarro, a New London native who has worked professionally as a ballroom dancer and choreographer for the New London Mega Stars dance group.

Navarro already has an associate's degree, but recently decided he wanted to go back to school to pursue a bachelor's degree. Higher Edge unofficially adopted him into its success program, which supports students who already have enrolled in college, and Navarro now is working toward that degree at Eastern Connecticut State University.

"He is excited that this is one way he can give back to Higher Edge; it kind of comes full circle for him," Soto said. "And he is so talented at choreography. I was amazed when I saw him going to work."

This year, Higher Edge is guiding 94 low-income and first-generation students through the college application and enrollment process. The nonprofit, based at the First Hispanic Baptist Church on Redden Avenue, is working this year with the high school juniors and seniors from low-income households, and those who will be the first in their families to attend college, to guide them through the process of choosing a college, applying for admission and securing financial aid - all free of charge to the students.

Since Higher Edge launched in 2011, 95 percent of its students - all New London residents - have enrolled in college, and 89 percent have persisted into their second year of higher education, Soto said.

The funds raised at Saturday's "Dancing for Degrees" event, Soto said, will allow Higher Edge to continue its mission of making a college opportunity available to underserved students.

Tickets for the event, which cost $20 each, are available at Muddy Waters Café on Bank Street or online at www.
HigherEdgeCT.org.

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

If you go

WHAT: Dancing for Degrees, a fundraiser for Higher Edge
WHO: Pairs of community leaders and students
WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Crozier-Williams Student Center, Connecticut College

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