Project jumpstarts refugees' college aspirations

When senior Riley Foster first started tutoring young refugee students, she assumed she was being encouraging and reaffirming of their abilities. But when one student casually mentioned he was never going to go to college because his parents couldn’t afford it, Foster felt disheartened. 

She wasn’t surprised – the student’s parents didn’t speak any English, they had five kids and lived below the poverty line. It was the student’s reasoning that struck Foster the most.  

“That’s what went straight to his head as a seventh grader,” she said. “’Forget if I’m capable, I couldn’t go because I couldn’t pay.’” 

A few months later, Foster stumbled upon the Eve Carson Scholarship, which funds summer projects for eligible juniors. Two days before the deadline, she sent in her application and later was chosen for the award. 

This summer, Foster used that money to launch Project Jumpstart: a two-week summer program that exposes refugee high school students to college life and the college application process.  

The first week of the program primarily consists of presentations from people like admissions officers, financial aid personnel and first-generation college students. Students also make College Board and Common App accounts, work on personal statement essays and tour UNC's campus to get them excited about the idea of one day attending college. The second week is centered on SAT and ACT prep with local tutors and education groups. 

“The idea is that (Project Jumpstart) will give these high school students, all of them would be first-gen, the exposure to certain resources, to the college process in the United States,” Foster said. “Most of the parents don’t speak English, and so it’s not at their disposal to just go out and get the information and tell their kids.” 

Foster said her goal isn’t to convince them that college is the best path, but to open that option to the students if they want it. 

“I don’t want them to feel like it’s not an option, either because they’re an immigrant or because of a language barrier or a financial barrier,” she said. “That it is a possibility for them regardless of those factors.” 

Jeremy Finazzo is a transfer student at UNC, and he worked as mentor for a week with Project Jumpstart. He said his favorite part of Project Jumpstart was working with the kids and helping them understand the college process. 

The moment that stuck out the most to Finazzo was during a Q&A session with the students, where they could ask any of the mentors questions about college. The students had so many questions that the discussion lasted for about an hour and a half. 

“They were questions that were asked from a relatable standpoint, they asked, ‘So when I go to college, will x, y, and z have to happen?’ and they were asking us to share about our college experience,” he said. “It put into perspective that we were doing our jobs. They’re engaged, they’re curious, and I think they’re starting to think more about college than the average highschooler would be in 10th or 11th grade.” 

That Q&A session was also one the most memorable moments for senior Becca Kronebusch, also a mentor at Project Jumpstart. Students not only remembered what her major was but asked her questions about it and about her experience. 

“It just showed that they were really interested in going to college and pursuing their passions,” she said.  

Kronebusch said she thinks that it’s important for communities to empower people of all backgrounds, which is why free programs like Project Jumpstart are significant. 

“(Refugees) are some of America’s newest immigrants to the country, and I think that it’s important that we empower them and show them that we really are there to support them,” she said. “It’s really just to empower minorities in America.”  

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