CONCOURSE — When Sharon Washington asked her high-achieving Bronx high school students last fall whether they had applied for the full-ride scholarship that had paid for her own college degrees, she looked out on a room of blank stares.
That moment spurred Washington, an adjunct professor at Hostos Community College, to start a free Saturday workshop series to help Bronx teens apply to colleges and seek financial aid. She called the program The FLY Academy — Fierce Leadership for Youth.
By the end of last school year, 18 seniors in the program had won a total of $2 million in college-tuition awards and four were selected as Gates Millennium Scholars — the full-tuition scholarship program for minority students that had sent Washington to Temple and Columbia universities.
Now, as Washington readies her 30 volunteer mentors and six unpaid staffers for another year of the Academy, she knows their students will face steep odds: families with limited college experience, high schools with low expectations and a borough with dismal college-readiness rates.
“These are extraordinary, brave and brilliant young people,” said Washington, 27. “They just need adults who will see that in them.”
Roughly 50 students voluntarily arrived for Washington’s first three-hour Saturday session, held in a classroom donated by Hostos. By year’s end, roughly 120 students from 10 Bronx and Upper Manhattan high schools had participated in the free Academy.
Though many were enrolled in College Now, a CUNY program that enables high school students to earn college credits, the teens still faced an uphill battle.
Several were the children of immigrants whose parents struggled or feared to complete required financial-aid forms, Washington said. Many were first in their family to apply for college.
Others received scant guidance from their high schools on taking the SATs, choosing colleges or finding financial aid — as was the case with FLY graduate Yeisi Guzman.
“Our high school didn’t prepare us for stuff like that,” said Guzman, 17, now a student at Sage College of Albany. “For me, I was lucky enough to find the FLY Academy.”
Many of the Academy’s mentors are former Gates Scholars who coached the students as they wrote the eight required essays for the program, which pays for an undergraduate degree at any college and graduate degrees in certain fields.
Darriel McBride, the second youngest of seven children, is a FLY graduate and the first in her family to attend college. She credits the Academy’s mentors with helping her snag a Gates award — out of more than 17,000 applicants nationwide.
“If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have won the scholarship,” said McBride, now a freshman at Marist College.
Washington is well aware that even students who excel at certain Bronx high schools may still struggle in college.
Of the city’s 21 neighborhoods with the lowest college-readiness rates based on test scores, 18 are located in The Bronx, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
To combat this, FLY Academy volunteers offer personal mentoring, tutoring and SAT prep.
They also lead candid talks about the challenges of campus life — from alcohol abuse to life as a minority at majority-white colleges — and they keep in touch with Academy graduates as they adjust to college.
On Monday, Guzman's first day of college classes, she emailed Washington for advice: how to afford expensive textbooks and a graphing calculator. Washington quickly shot back a reply.
Washington and the other mentors at FLY Academy aren’t like any she has ever had before, Guzman said later.
“They really care about you and your future and your education,” she said, “and where it can take you.”