Evanston Scholars Mentors Help Low-Income Teens Thrive in College

Jonathan Martinez, 18, is a senior at Evanston Township High School who hopes to study business or engineering next year at college. He is still deciding whether he wants to stay close to home and attend Lake Forest College or travel further away and attend one of his top choices, Western Michigan University. But a year and a half ago, Martinez wasn’t sure he’d ever have the chance to make that decision.

“The first college I looked up was Lake Forest College. I saw the price and I thought how in the world am I going to get this money?” Martinez says.

Evanston Scholars is a program working to help first generation, high-achieving students at ETHS like Martinez get into and prosper at “good-fit” colleges.

“They don’t give out money but they help you find it,” Martinez says. “I had no idea where to start, and they narrowed it down with me.”

Program founder Steve Newman is a teacher at ETHS. He says he started the program because he saw so many ambitious students drop out of college.

“That was so hard to see and I still see it—they go for a semester and then they come back and then they’re working, and then they’re still working,” Newman says. These students don’t make long-term plans and, therefore, limit their possibilities for the future, he says.

Only 8 percent of high-achieving, low-income students are “achievement typical” in their application patterns, meaning they applied to institutions that closely matched their abilities, according to a 2013 study called “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving Low-Income Students.”

Newman says he thinks the biggest problem for his organization’s target population is the lack of support once they arrive on campus. Evanston Scholars combats this issue with a dedicated staff and long-term mentorship. Once students are accepted to competitive programs, they are matched with a mentor who provides support for the next six years. Mentors assist with everything from writing college essays to scheduling school visits to understanding scholarship/financial information.

Jonathan Martinez, 18

“I remember when we were working on my college essay statement, my mentor and I started around 7 p.m. and the next thing you know, we are working on polishing it up and trying to gather my ideas, and it’s three in the morning,” says Martinez. “He told me it’s worth it to him because all of this is going to pay off later.”

Becoming a Mentor

The only qualification for applying to be a mentor: you must be a college graduate.

“It’s a big time commitment if you’re going to do it well,” says mentor Jennifer Steans.

Steans, who owns private equity firm in Chicago, says the program provides mentors with structure and helpful tools, but every mentor goes about the process their own way. Steans says that she would meet with her mentee on Sunday afternoons. They would go over materials, do work and then she would invite her mentee to stay for family dinner. One of the most rewarding things for Steans was seeing where her mentee ended up going to school.

“She has told me under no certain terms that she believes she really would have been at Oakton Community College,” Steans says. “Instead, she’s on almost a full ride to Lake Forest College, where she is studying to be an elementary teacher, which is what her dream has been.”

Evidence of Success

Newman estimates it costs $15,000 per student to come through the program for six years. For the organization’s most recent class, each student was granted an average of $126,000 of scholarship money for four years.

“So if you look monetarily at return on investment, that’s a nice rate of return,” Newman says.

Evanston Scholars participants apply to 10 schools on average. The national average is three. The program currently accepts 30 students, but Newman would like to increase enrollment to 40. Newman says the toughest part is turning down qualified students, but he’s pleased to see program participants helping classmates.

“Right now I know a couple of students who have actually asked me for help on their college applications,” Martinez says. “I finished six applications before I even started the school year, so I offered my help.”

A college degree nearly quadruples the chances for children born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution to make it to the top, according to a 2008 report titled “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America.”

Martinez says his parents often tell him, “We have a good life, but we want you to have a better life.”

“I want to make sure I get there,” Martinez says. “And if other people need help, I want to make sure I get them there with me.”

For more information on Evanston Scholars or to apply to become a mentor, visit evanstonscholars.org.

Other college prep programs similar to Evanston Scholars include: