Higher Edge in an expansion mode
When Shineika Fareus was in high school, she had no idea what it took to get into college, much less make it all the way through.
But the now 24-year-old New London High School graduate lucked out by latching onto a relatively new program at the time called Higher Edge that helps first-generation college students negotiate their higher education journey. It’s a nonprofit started a dozen years ago by Chris Soto, who later became a state legislator from New London, director of legislative affairs for Gov. Ned Lamont and now an education official in the Biden administration.
But to Fareus, a Haitian native who barely spoke English when she arrived 13 years ago to join her grandmother in New London, Higher Edge was a lifeline.
“They help you with every step of the process,” Fareus said during an interview at Washington Street Coffee House in New London. “The organization really challenges you to take advantage of all the opportunities.”
And Fareus, who fled Haiti with her family right after the devastating 2010 earthquake that left an estimated 300,000 dead in the impoverished Caribbean country, did well. She finished four years at Gordon College in Massachusetts, where she was class president her senior year, with not only her undergraduate but also a master’s degree.
Now she’s a lobbyist in Hartford for the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union as well as a board member for Higher Edge. And, since she emerged from college with no debt, she also now owns her own home in the city.
It’s the kind of success story that Chap Hanley, president of the board of Higher Edge, likes to trumpet every chance he gets. And now that the program has grown to include mentoring about 250 students a year, he says it’s ripe for expansion into Windham County in addition to its New London County roots.
“Higher Edge is in a pretty good place,” he said.
Now with a staff of only three, including Executive Director Katie Hallisey, Higher Edge recently began advertising for a digital marketing coordinator to help get the word out about the nonprofit’s activities through social media, including Facebook and Instagram. Hanley also thinks the organization could use a campaign manager to help raise funds and an additional coordinator to help mentor students, but that will mean boosting Higher Edge’s current budget of about $250,000 pretty substantially.
Meanwhile, Hanley has been working to build up the board, adding not only Fareus but people like Devon Butler, executive coordinator of Women’s Health Connecticut, and Sam Nassetta, a young attorney with Suisman Shapiro.
“Now the board’s on board for growing,” he said.
Hanley, in an interview at Muddy Waters Cafe, said Higher Edge already has a physical location available in Willimantic thanks to free office space being offered by the Chamber of Commerce there.
The idea is to reach even more students to get the message out about Higher Edge’s free program geared toward potential first-generation college students like Fareus who may have trouble navigating not only the application and selection process of colleges but also the confusing array of issues and nomenclature that may confront students once they already are enrolled in school.
“It’s very time-consuming, very intense,” Hanley said.
Students get help during their high school years with college essays, applying for student aid and loans, college visits, issues around early acceptance, educational fit and interviews, and then later in dealing with college administrators, professors and fellow students. Help includes monthly check-ins with mentors assigned by Higher Edge.
“They even send you care packages,” Fareus said.
But one of her biggest lessons from Higher Edge was to stay away from student debt. And that’s one of the big reasons she chose Gordon College in Massachusetts, because the offer was basically a free ride when combined with the money she got for being a Martin Luther King Scholar at New London High.
“The beautiful thing about New London is once you know the right people you really are exposed to a lot of resources,” Fareus said. “There are a lot of scholarships in the area.”
Fareus encourages all young people to apply to Higher Edge if you qualify. Information gleaned from financial workshops about credit scores, debt and financial planning were among the most valuable bits of information she picked up along the way, she said.
“That’s not something you get in the school system here,” she added. “These are tools critical to adulthood.”
Fareus also negotiated taking college-level courses from the University of Connecticut during high school and making sure they earned her credit at Gordon College. She said it was by taking college courses instead of Advanced Placement classes that she was able to reduce expenses later on.
She still finds it amazing that she began taking English as a Second Language courses when she first arrived in America at age 11, and was an honors student by high school.
But to Hanley, the Higher Edge board president, Fareus’ story just proves there are a lot of talented and smart young people in the area who only need a couple breaks to find lifelong success.
“Her story is a Higher Edge story,” he said. “It’s an American immigration story.”
Higher Edge helped Fareus avoid getting lost in an education system that all too often doesn’t focus on the smarter, more driven students, who, because of their circumstances, may assume they are too poor to afford college, he added. Higher Edge tries to identify these teens in their sophomore year of high school, Hanley said, focusing on students motivated to go to college who lack knowledge about the pathway to get there.
And he said parents have to be convinced, too, since many are afraid of being deported, whether or not they arrived in the United States legally. Hanley is proud of the Higher Edge students’ graduation rate from college of about 85%, far above the national average.
He’s also aware that more fundraising will have to occur if Higher Edge is to sustain its current growth mode. And this means relying less on grant funding, which is time-consuming and finite, and more on continual fundraising (higheredge.org/donate).
Having a good tale to tell about the effectiveness of Higher Edge, and now some impressive graduates of the program who are starting to give back to the community, is one way to encourage fundraising efforts.
Fareus herself has ambitions to give back to the community that encouraged her to find a higher purpose in life, one that she hopes eventually will lead to a career as a civil rights lawyer. For now, she has her sights set on a possible run for City Council in New London.
“It would give me a platform to be part of change,” Fareus said. “There’s a lack of investment in young people. I think we could do so much more as a community.”
Hanley believes Fareus could do anything she put her mind to, including running for president one day.
“She’s such a good example of someone who has a plan and goes for it,” Hanley said.