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A Way Forward

Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program offers guidance, support, and community

For Edna Olvera ’21, going to college meant a real opportunity to brighten her family’s future. But before crossing that threshold, Olvera needed to face some hard truths. 

“I was going to be alone, over 1,500 miles from home, and no one in my family had ever done this before,” says Olvera, a first-generation, low-income student from Houston. 

Jonathan Tostado-Marquez ’19’s parents had also encouraged him to pursue education as a means to escape their lives of hard labor. But there was no blueprint to follow, and his high school lacked resources to guide him.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” he says.

The Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program (S3P) offered a unique way forward. Since 2015, S3P has supported 16 students annually who are first-generation, low-income, and/or underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The newly admitted students arrive on campus for four weeks of summer classes -— a concentrated method to learn how to thrive in college-level courses while building lasting bonds with classmates, faculty, and staff.

Seizing that opportunity were Olvera, an astrophysics and educational studies special major, and Tostado-Marquez, now a mathematics graduate student at Iowa State University (thanks in part to doing graph-theory research with his S3P adviser, Professor of Mathematics Cheryl Grood). They each relished the opportunity to take a “test run” at the College, and discovered it helped them build confidence and connections.

“I needed to prepare myself for success as best as I could,” says Olvera. “If that meant spending an extra few weeks on campus before freshman year, I was going to take full advantage of that opportunity.”

These are challenging courses — writing, math and a laboratory science (for which the subject rotates each year) — taught last summer by Phil Everson, a professor of statistics; Peter Schmidt, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature; and Matt Zucker, an associate professor of engineering, who incorporated computer-aided design (CAD) into his lessons.

“I was deeply impressed with the work they were able to do in the MakerSpace” says Zucker. “A lot of them had never seen CAD before, or touched a 3-D printer or a laser cutter, and by the end they were cranking out things that were really pretty great.”

Now, thanks to a $2 million campaign commitment, countless students will follow in Olvera’s and Tostado-Marquez’s footsteps. 

S3P was already a high priority for the Changing Lives, Changing the World campaign, but that gift took the program over the top, allowing it to create a $5 million endowment to support the program in perpetuity. The endowment will empower S3P to continue providing students with the tools they need to navigate an increasingly complex world.

In some ways, it was easy to persuade alumni to support the program, says Amy Vollmer, the Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor of Biology and director of S3P. There were the tangible outcomes: a scholar who had been accepted into every astrobiology graduate program to which she applied, another who earned a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention, yet another who published a paper after a summer internship in environmental justice … the list goes on. 

Vollmer says the most consistent message from older alumni was that they wished they could have had access to a similar program when they were students. S3P is rooted in such sentiments — in particular, a report from previous alumni of underrepresented backgrounds who never felt completely at home at Swarthmore, and who wished for an easier path for future students. Vollmer praises a faculty steering committee and the early leadership of S3P for “the heavy lift” of taking the program from good intention to Swarthmore success story. But even more convincing were the scholars’ own experiences.

“S3P was a pretty big player in how I chose one of my majors, astrophysics,” says Olvera, who interacted closely with professors Catherine Crouch and David Cohen in the Physics and Astronomy Department. “Both are some of my strongest supporters and mentors. Socially, S3P gave me a community to lean on as I transitioned into Swarthmore, and in some ways helped me not become one of the first-gen/low-income students that leave their institutions because of lack of support.” 

In addition to the introductory summer courses, the scholars reconvene for one week in January for sessions with S3P faculty, refresher lessons, Career Services workshops, alumni roundtables, and reflection.

The heartbeat of the program, though, says Tostado-Marquez, is the community it creates — the sense of belonging among the students.

“I feel like I was a part of Swarthmore through the [S3P],” he says. Graduation offered him a chance to reflect on the journey. “It had been four years. … We’re all here, and we’re all graduating together. That was especially nice to feel connected to them not just like, hey, we went to college together. But we started with S3P and we ended with
where we are now.”

S3P students form a singular bond of support for each other, says Elizabeth Flores ’19, a member of the first S3P cohort who returned as an engineering mentor last summer to develop her teaching skills and give back to the program. “Even if you’re not best friends with the person, you know you can rely on them for anything,” she says. “You leave the program knowing there are people who have your back.” 

The scholars also build bonds with these student mentors — think equal parts teaching assistants and resident advisers — with whom they can relate and feel at home; with the S3P faculty, who continue as their adviser or secondary adviser the whole time they are at Swarthmore; and with many of the more than 100 other people they meet in their first year in the program, from staff from financial aid and the Office of Student Engagement to College deans and alumni. 

“It’s about building a true cohort,” says Vollmer, who lauds the support of Debbie Thompson, administrative coordinator for the program; Karen Henry ’87, dean of first-year students and director of first-generation and low-income student initiatives; the offices of Advancement, the Provost, Public Safety, and Admissions; President Valerie Smith, who meets with the scholars and their families at Orientation and Commencement; and more. “They see they’re not alone, that there’s all kinds of people in their corner.”

The program is not a simple “bridge” between high school and college curricula. The underlying messages of S3P are that Swarthmore is a place of vigorous academics for all, and that everyone gets stuck. The students who succeed, Vollmer insists, are the ones who ask for help the earliest and who learn to collaborate. 

A notable challenge for prospective applicants to S3P is that the students might need to work over the summer to help make ends meet. Sometimes that comes at the expense of academic exploration and achievement. To help mitigate not working for four weeks, S3P provides each scholar with a $2,375 summer stipend. Some of them send it home to their families.

Such considerations reverberate through the program. An unintended consequence of S3P, Vollmer says, is it boosting Swarthmore in the eyes of even those who don’t qualify for it.

“They’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s important — I want to attend an institution that puts its money where its mouth is,” says Vollmer. “That’s so powerful, and it says so much about Swarthmore.”

The summer poster session that the scholars present, showcasing their work and new insights, is one piece of evidence that the program is working. Attendees are meant to look at the posters, but it’s hard not to focus on the scholars’ confidence.

“That comes from having 15 people whom you can now call your friends, who haven’t judged you, who are there for you, who will practice with you, who will stay up late at night with you and help you,” says Vollmer. “It comes from these young scholars creating their own identity, saying, ‘I belong here. I’m going to be successful here.’”

Anatomy of an Endowment

The Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program (S3P) reached an important milestone last year when James ’79 and Anahita Lovelace committed $2 million to the program: self-sufficiency. By adding to S3P’s endowed fund, the Lovelaces ensured the program could operate in perpetuity without being dependent on funding from the College’s operating budget each year.

Swarthmore’s endowment contributes to the operating budget of the College and safeguards the institution from economic and political fluctuations. In Fiscal Year 2019 (July 1, 2018–June 30, 2019), the operating revenue budget, including debt service, was $185.3 million. The endowment distributed $106.3 million, or 57.4% of College operating revenue. 

Within the endowment there are separately tracked endowed funds, many of which are restricted to specific purposes, such as scholarships, awards, and programs like S3P. These funds are made up of gifts from individual donors like the Lovelaces and from institutional funders like the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. Each year, the College makes a distribution from the endowment within a target range of 3.5–5.0%. The distribution from the S3P endowed funds will finance the program going forward.

Raising endowment funding is no easy task, especially when a program is just starting out. As a result, funding in the early stages of a program is typically donated with the intent that it be used in the year it is given. 

While an allocation from the President’s Office got S3P off the ground, a generous gift from former Swarthmore Board of Managers member Richard Barasch ’76 and his wife, Renee, expanded the pilot phase from three years to four. The gift, made in 2015, was a major turning point. The shift from internal to external support signaled the program’s viability and helped draw the attention of other funders.

The Barasches spread the word about S3P, sharing their interest and commitment with close friends Mark ’74 and Amanda Orr Harmeling ’73. The Harmelings’ gift in June 2016 was the first endowed donation, establishing an endowed fund for others to give to in the future. 

And give they did. 

Nan Waksman Schanbacher ’72 established the Waksman Fund for S3P through a gift from the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology in December 2016. In May 2017, David ’77 and Rhonda Resnick Cohen ’76 gave the first seven-figure gift to the program, creating momentum that led to a major gift from Robin Shapiro ’78 and Kate Levin a month later. Six months after that, Schanbacher made a second endowed gift through the Waksman Foundation. 

When the first S3P cohort graduated last May, 15 alumni had made significant contributions to S3P totaling $3 million, but its endowment was still $2 million shy of full funding. However, the program’s outcomes were measurable, and they were hard to ignore. The program was a success for the students: They demonstrated higher rates of retention
in STEM majors compared with those who did not participate in S3P. 

Enter the Lovelaces. Inspired by S3P’s success, they gave the final $2 million needed to bring the endowment to full funding in July 2019.

The legacy of S3P’s generous donors is a more inclusive community that ensures 16 students each year will have access and opportunity in STEM fields that might otherwise have been out of their reach.