Fulfilling Dreams

Dreams Fulfilled, a Rutgers “Big Idea,” supports a three-part plan for students and families: Establishing access, ensuring affordability, and partnering for success

By Sam Starnes

What sort of difference can financial support make in a student’s life?

Consider the impact on the lives of twin brothers George and Washington Hill, Camden residents who in 1957 were granted full-tuition scholarships to Rutgers University–Camden, then known as Rutgers College of South Jersey. “Rutgers made it possible for us to go to college,” Washington said.

George, left, and Washington Hill

The brothers—whose father was a postal clerk and mother a domestic worker—graduated from Rutgers in 1961 and went on to exceptional careers. Washington earned his medical degree from Temple University, and for more than 50 years, has been a practicing obstetrician and perinatologist, serving as president and chief of the medical staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida. George, who earned a master’s degree from Howard University and a doctorate in biochemistry at New York University, led a distinguished career in biomedical research and academia, serving as the first vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

What would their futures have been had they not received support from Rutgers? “I’m not sure where else we would have gone,” Washington said.

In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of their Rutgers graduations, the brothers established the Hill Family Center for College Access at Rutgers–Camden with a $200,000 gift. Since its inception a decade ago, the Hill Center has helped more than 3,600 high school students to apply to college. “It’s heart-warming and rewarding to know that the gift we were able to provide—with the intention of being able to provide for students from Camden—is bearing fruit,” George said. “When you’re able to provide support and see the impact it has on the lives of students, that’s what investment is all about.”

A Big Idea: Dreams Fulfilled

Nyeema Watson

The counseling provided by the Hill Center is one plank in a comprehensive strategy at Rutgers–Camden known as Dreams Fulfilled, an initiative in the Big Ideas fundraising campaign launched by the Rutgers Foundation this spring. The linked programs under the Dreams Fulfilled umbrella have three goals: help students from lower-income families find their way to college, help them pay for tuition and expenses, and support them academically to ensure graduation.

Many of the students who benefit from this array of programs, particularly those focused on college preparation, are from Camden and surrounding towns. “Camden is a challenged community socioeconomically, but not challenged in the sense of the aspirations, desires, and motivations of our young people,” said Nyeema Watson, vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion, and civic engagement, who is a lifelong resident of Camden and an alumna of Rutgers–Camden. “Our young people need support to go to college to make their dreams a reality. We know that through our pipeline of support we can fulfill this dream for young people and their families. It’s exciting to highlight these programs for our alumni and supporters in the universitywide Big Ideas campaign. We believe that students we support today can go on to be the Hill brothers of the next generation.”

A Pipeline of Dreams

Programs in the Dreams Fulfilled pipeline consist of pre-college preparatory programs that reach out to students as early as third grade, including the Rutgers Future Scholars, Ignite, and the Hill Center; initiatives that help Rutgers–Camden students pay for college and avoid student loan debt, such as Scarlet Promise Grants and Bridging the Gap, a groundbreaking grant program that helps all New Jersey families making under $100,000 annually cover all or most costs of tuition and expenses; and services that support all Rutgers–Camden students academically on the road to graduation, including the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), TRiO, the Student Success Office, and tutoring, learning, and disability services. (For an overview of the programs, see pages 14–15.)

Many of the Dreams Fulfilled programs and similar initiatives to support students have existed for decades at Rutgers–Camden. The scholarships offered to the Hill brothers, for example, happened 64 years ago, and the EOF program in 2018 celebrated a 50-yearanniversary. “Rutgers–Camden has always been a place where we are successful with students who are the first in their families to go to college,” Watson said. “With Dreams Fulfilled, we have a comprehensive strategy on how to do that—a strategy that works.”

Tamia Taylor said she might not have been able to graduate without financial support from the Bridging the Gap program.

Bridging the Gap, which launched at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2016, has been replicated at universities throughout New Jersey and across the nation, including Harvard and Princeton. The program benefits lower-income New Jersey families by closing the gap between federal and state sources of financial aid and the balance of tuition and the campus fee. Its first cohort of 89 students graduated in May 2020. “Bridging the Gap helped cover a good amount of costs that otherwise I may not have been able to afford,” said Tamia Taylor, who earned Rutgers–Camden bachelor’s degrees in psychology and childhood studies in 2020. “Without it, my graduation day may not have been possible.” Taylor is now working toward a master’s and a doctorate in counseling psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

Joan Maya Mazelis

Joan Maya Mazelis, a Rutgers–Camden sociology associate professor who is an expert on poverty and has been studying student loan debt for five years, has interviewed many students at Rutgers–Camden about how they pay for college. “Rutgers–Camden is really a trendsetter,” said Mazelis, who has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant for her research into student loan debt. “Bridging the Gap makes it possible for some students to avoid loans completely.”

Another benefit of programs supporting first-generation students is that these efforts help Rutgers–Camden better reflect the rich diversity of New Jersey’s demographic makeup. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia noted in a report that the likelihood of Black and Hispanic students enrolling in Rutgers–Camden was much greater as a result of Bridging the Gap. Watson said that the pre-college programs focusing on Camden youth—Rutgers Future Scholars, Ignite, and the Hill Family Center for College Access—as well as the learning assistance programs such as EOF, also serve to increase the number of students of color at the university. “A key element of Dreams Fulfilled is addressing racial inequity in access to and getting through college,” Watson said. “A goal of this initiative is to make sure that we are open and welcoming to all types of students to come here and to get their education.”

While programs that support students with scholarships and financial aid are common components of college fundraising campaigns, asking donors to help pay for programs that support first-generation students with mentoring and tutoring services once they enroll is less common. A unique aspect of the Dreams Fulfilled effort is the inclusion of programs that help students graduate, said Jason Rivera, Rutgers–Camden’s vice chancellor for student academic success. “Getting students into college is critically important, but getting them out is even more important,” Rivera said. “We talk more rarely about how once a student has gained access, what do they do next? How do we actually help those students who are part of our community succeed? How do we navigate this system and structure so not only are they getting access, but they are making it through with as little debt and as little stress as possible? The way we work on getting them out is making sure they have all the support they need. Once they graduate, they can use their degree and what they’ve learned to transform their lives and the lives of their families.”

Jason Rivera

Rivera, who grew up in difficult circumstances in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, attests to the significance of a family seeing one of its own be the first to earn a college degree. “I was a homeless high school kid and the first in my family to graduate,” he said. “Every one of my nieces and nephews have gone to college and done well. It creates a pathway for your family to see it is attainable.”

Mazelis said earning a college degree has two significant impacts on first-generation students from families who live at or below the poverty line: the first is the increased lifelong earning power that comes with the degree; the second is a sense of pride that resonates through a family. “At Rutgers–Camden commencement every year, you can see the pride students and their families have at passing this amazing milestone,” she said. “It shows the sense of accomplishment and the ability to be a role model. It has symbolic power as well as practical usefulness.”

Beyond boosting individuals and their families, the effort to help more New Jersey residents earn college degrees has economic impact statewide. “It’s good for the state of New Jersey to have more educated citizens,” Watson said. “As a land-grant university, Rutgers is here for the public good. This is the work we should be doing. It requires many hands to make it possible.”

Alexa Pena, a 2020 graduate, said she relied on support from the Rutgers Futures Scholars, the Hill Family Center for College Access, and EOF programs. 

A Story of Support

Alexa Pena was a Camden middle school student when one of her teachers recommended she should apply for the Rutgers Future Scholars program, which mentored academically talented students. She was accepted, and soon the program ignited in her the dream of higher education. “No one in my household went to college,” she said. “Rutgers Future Scholars motivated me to go on a different path.”

After six years of participation in Rutgers Future Scholars and counseling from the Hill Family Center for College Access, Pena, who had moved to Pennsauken in high school, enrolled at Rutgers–Camden as a biology major in the fall of 2015.

Even though she had support from the Rutgers Future Scholars and EOF, she found college difficult in her first semester. “It was really hard,” Pena said. “Coming right out of high school, I was like, ‘OK, college is too hard for me.’”

She tried to persevere, but in her second semester, she met a more difficult challenge: She fell seriously ill and needed brain surgery, which forced her to miss the spring semester. “I was getting used to college, and then, oh my gosh, I had to have brain surgery.”

Such setbacks often cause students to never return to finish their degrees. But Pena said even though she was recuperating and out of school, she continued to get encouragement from Marsha Besong, assistant chancellor for student success who directs the Rutgers–Camden EOF program, and her EOF counselor, Randi Ferguson, assistant director of the program. “Marsha was always in touch with me asking, ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’” Pena said. “Randi was always in touch, too.”

Pena recovered and returned to take a full load of classes in fall 2016. She worked with EOF counselors who helped her with a time management schedule, as well as tutoring and mentoring. “Just having someone to talk to when you are having stress was so beneficial,” she said.

After changing her major to psychology, Pena excelled, earning a professional certificate as a Spanish medical interpreter. She also made the dean’s list and completed two internships before graduating in spring 2020. She is now applying to graduate school, with plans to focus on a career working with those who have communications disorders. She said she could not have done it without the chain of support she received.

Although she was the first in her family to attend college, she was not the last. Her sister, Jacquelyn, who is five years younger, has followed in her footsteps. Jacquelyn participated in Rutgers Future Scholars through middle school and high school, and is now in her first year as a nursing major at Rutgers–Camden.

Avoiding Student Debt

Bridging the Gap, as well as Scarlet Promise Grants, a universitywide program that supports students with emergency financial needs, helps to minimize or eliminate the need for student loans.

Mazelis said that nationwide about two-thirds of college graduates finish with student loans averaging more than $30,000, a burden that can delay young adults from attending graduate school, buying homes, getting married, and starting families. By helping students to avoid and minimize student loan debt, it allows them to transition to adulthood more easily. “Not having debt frees young adults to be able to think about their futures and to plan with a wider array of possibilities,” Mazelis said.

Mazelis said the efforts to help students graduate once they enroll is critical and directly relates to student loan debt. “People who go to college and never complete their degrees often end up with a lot of student loan debt and not a really clear way to pay it off,” she said. “It happens more than we wish it did. There are students who are very close to graduating—maybe a year or even a semester away—and they look at their student loan debt so far and they are just not sure it’s worth it. I always encourage my own students by telling them, ‘If you have loans, and you are already here, do what you can to finish your degree, because you’ll be better positioned to pay them off.”

She said Rutgers–Camden’s programs, particularly Bridging the Gap, which is a degree-completion program that requires students to take 30 credits per year and graduate in four years, is “a fantastic endeavor” that helps students to avoid the pitfalls of student loans.

Craig Westman

Craig Westman, vice chancellor for enrollment management and the senior administrator behind the Bridging the Gap program, said he is excited about the opportunity for the program to gain support from alumni donors. “Alumni know what a difference a Rutgers degree has made in their lives,” he said. “They can now provide a pathway to students in this generation to get a Rutgers degree.”

Westman added that the financial difficulties posed by the pandemic have increased the need for student support Bridging the Gap awards to students are based on annual adjusted gross incomes; families with incomes of $100,000 are eligible for grants, and families with annual incomes of $60,000 or less will have tuition and the general campus fee covered by the program. “Families have some real fiscal challenges now,” he said. “Money from donors will go to those families that have the greatest need.”

Student Success Story

Omar Samaniego, a 2017 graduate from Camden who benefited from financial support through the EOF program and also the Alfred Santiago Scholarship, said he graduated with only a few thousand dollars of student loan debt. “I paid it off before completing my first year at my job,” said Samaniego, who lives in Camden and works in Philadelphia as a senior underwriter for New York Life.

He said the financial support he received allowed him to concentrate on his studies and not work long hours in a part-time or full-time job to make ends meet, as many Rutgers–Camden students do. “I was able to focus all of my energy on school,” he said.

Omar Samaniego, a 2017 graduate who is a senior underwriter for New York Life, said financial support and mentoring were critical to his success.

In addition to the financial support, the mentoring and guidance he received through the EOF program was critical. He started his first year at Rutgers–New Brunswick, but barely got by with marginal grades. He transferred to Rutgers–Camden for his sophomore year and connected with EOF counselors who helped him to develop a plan for improving his academic performance. “That support was the most important factor in my progress,” he said.

Ultimately, he graduated magna cum laude and had two job offers six months before he graduated. He said the financial support and the mentoring at Rutgers–Camden were critical to his success. “What these programs do is level the playing field for students like myself—a first-generation student who is learning to navigate college, life, and everything else, on the fly. It really provides that necessary support—financially, socially, academically—so that we can fulfill our dreams and aspirations. All of those combined factors really are what got me to where I am today.”

Samaniego said his life could have been dramatically different had it not been for the the help he received from Rutgers–Camden. “Without the monetary and social support, who knows?” he asked. “I don’t know what I would be doing now. I was able to reap the benefits of all these programs and graduate and start a career.”

Tom McLaughlin contributed to this story.

To learn more about Dreams Fulfilled, read “You Can Help Fulfill Dreams.” For more about other Rutgers Big Ideas, visit support.rutgers. edu/big-ideas. If you have questions or would like to discuss a gift, contact Scott Owens CCAS’04, GSC’10, acting vice chancellor for advancement, at scowens@camden.rutgers.edu or 856-225-6028.

Posted in: 2021 Spring, Features

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