Scenes from a Liberty Scholars "Mix & Mingle" event which took place on Fed. 27 in MacAlister Hall's Sky View Lounge. Photos by Cassi Segulin.
For many first-generation college students from families of limited means or non-traditional backgrounds, college poses challenges beyond the cost of admission. Cultural transitions, time management, complicated home lives and finding the feeling of belonging are all factors that can make the difference between success and failure. Each year, Drexel University’s Liberty Scholars program helps 50 graduates from Philadelphia high schools overcome hurdles like these by building a community from their first year of college to their last.
“When you come to Drexel, realization can slap you in the face very quickly,” said Bernetta Millonde, the director of diversity initiatives and community relations for Undergraduate Admissions at Drexel. “[We give them] the mindset where, ‘You are resilient beyond what you think.’ You may have a shortfall in a skillset, but we can help you get there if you go to the resources that we’re outlining for you.”
The Liberty Scholars program was established in 2010 by Drexel's then–Interim President Chuck Pennoni. It provides students in each cohort a renewable scholarship award that covers 100 percent of tuition and fees to the University. To date, the program has enrolled more than 400 students and awarded more than $76 million in scholarships to recipients.
So far, the program boasts a 97.6 percent average one-year retention rate and a 85.5 percent average six-year graduation rate, which surpasses overall Drexel averages. It has helped students complete college who might otherwise have been unable to afford college at all.
“We help students learn to advocate for themselves, become more confident in their scholarship and understand that they earned their seat at the table,” said Millonde. “The Liberty Scholars program changes the trajectory of students’ lives.”
DrexelNow asked Liberty Scholars from a variety of backgrounds about their Drexel experience — the good and the bad, the unique and the familiar — in order to learn how this program has affected and benefitted them, and how their presence here has made an impact on the University.
“If I hadn’t received it, I don’t think I would have ended up here,” said Shania Smith, a fifth-year marketing student in the LeBow College of Business, of the Liberty Scholars scholarship.
But in her time here, Smith has taken full advantage: living on campus all five years, studying abroad, becoming a resident assistant, being involved in both college- and University-level organizations and co-oping at a startup on the West Coast as well as attending the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit.
“I feel like I’ve been able to do everything that I probably would have wanted to in college,” she said.
Smith’s successes don’t mean it wasn’t difficult in the beginning. Smith went from being near-top of her class at New Foundations Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia to not performing as well in Drexel’s first-year English and math classes than she would have liked.
“You have to push yourself harder in order to perform at the same level, if not above, other students,” Smith said, citing that her high school did not initially offer AP classes or college prep until her senior year. “It was kind of a wakeup call because you’re thinking, ‘I’m coming from high school. I graduated third in my class. I’m going to do fine.’ And then you get into your first few courses and you’re like, ‘Why am I not getting all A’s on my assignments?’”
Even though Smith grew up nearby in both Camden and Northeast Philadelphia, living in University City was also so new to her she might as well have moved across the country.
“I tell my residents this: Drexel is a bubble,” she said. “For me, it’s sort of like you can disconnect campus from the rest of Philadelphia because it’s very different.”
Even though it can feel far away, Smith said that staying in Philadelphia for college also means Liberty Scholars like herself remain close to the challenges that home can bring. Because of this, the opportunity to live on campus can be even more enjoyable and important.
“I think it definitely shapes how much you’re able to get from a school, based on how present you are here,” she said.
As a fifth-year, Smith is taking the time to mentor underclass Liberty Scholars — something she found important during her earlier years at Drexel. In fact, Smith and a fellow fifth-year Liberty Scholar worked with Millonde to arrange a mixer last month for all current Liberty Scholars to get together and learn from each other.
She hopes she can be an example for all students feeling limited to know not to put themselves in a box.
“I think a lot of us come in [to college] with a very limited view of what we can do or achieve,” she said. “The advice I would give Liberty Scholars is to simply push themselves, and just don’t limit yourself to simple goals. I think we can all achieve and be really great.”
For Chike Onuchukwu, a first-year chemistry student in the College of Arts and Sciences, education is a big thing in his family. Onuchukwu graduated from Central High School in North Philadelphia and didn’t have to choose a chemistry/premed track, but he felt the pressure to pick a STEM major.
“That’s the thing that takes up most of my schedule: the labs and the recitations. It’s really hard,” Onuchukwu said, reflecting on his academic experience at Drexel so far. “Every day I have at least three classes, so it kind of gets annoying when you see friends in other majors, and they’re chilling. They only have a class a day. It’s kind of frustrating. But whatever, it’s college I guess.”
Onuchukwu feels that his high school programming was pretty rigorous — so much so that when he graduated, he felt ready for college, and he still feels that way.
“I’m fine here, it’s just more effort, so that’s something that I’m working on,” he said.
To make time for that extra effort, Onuchukwu decided not to join the club soccer team here at Drexel despite making it, so that he could focus on academics.
“Drexel is just too fast,” he said. “I didn’t want that to be an obstacle in my way, especially during my first year. … It’s so fast. You can’t slip up on anything. Once you slip up, that’s your A. So definitely do whatever it takes to put your academics first.”
Drexel is fast, but the Liberty Scholars program is doing everything to make sure he has all the resources he needs to succeed, Onuchukwu said. He feels greatly supported by Millonde, calling her a “second mom,” and has sought resources even outside of Liberty Scholars, like the Math Resource Center.
Onuchukwu is harnessing the opportunity he’s been given — working on managing his time and getting the most of living on campus in the program’s first-year living community in Millennium Hall. But he has known other Liberty Scholars who have found it hard to carry on for reasons personal to them, ultimately deciding to drop out.
Onuchukwu sometimes feels the stress to perform, but at the end of the day keeps one key objective in mind.
“It probably seems like a lot of pressure for you to do great,” he said. “Just try to ignore that and do your best, really. Don’t listen to outside factors. ... Try not to think of those voices in your head.”
Ramon Gonzalez Jr., a third-year student majoring in management information systems in the LeBow College of Business, still remembers packing up his room in Millennium Hall after his freshman year, knowing that he’d be moving home to become a commuter student versus continuing to live on campus.
“I was like ‘I could have done this a little better,’” he remembered.
Gonzalez got caught up in somewhat of a grass-is-greener paradox, because when he was living on campus he often wanted to be home with his family and longtime friends, but once he moved back he wished he was still on campus.
“Once I started commuting, it was a little more difficult for me to be on campus,” he said. “For example, I would come for class and some club meetings here and there, but you’re not on campus all the time and you don’t know what’s going on all the time simply because sometimes you just don’t want to take the commute.”
Despite this, commuting is working well for Gonzalez this year. The decision all came down to cost and convenience, like not having to move on and off campus for every co-op like he’s on now. Plus, being home means eating his mom’s homecooked meals. Gonzalez’s family is from the Dominican Republic, and he and his siblings are the first generation to go to school here in the United States.
Gonzalez attended to Northeast High School, and he went from having a “really bad” freshman year there to taking a whole host of AP classes later on. Ultimately, he said high school was “very easy,” but to be expected, college has been a little different.
“It’s been a great experience,” Gonzalez said of his time at Drexel. “It’s challenging here and there, but overall, I don’t have many complaints.”
Gonzalez can get some of his work done at home, citing that having his own room and his own space helps minimize distractions. But when he has to be “in the zone,” he’s here on campus, sometimes at night and on weekends.
“Sometimes I’ll be here really late, or if I have group projects, I’ll be here even on days that I don’t have class,” he said.
What does help Gonzalez stay connected to campus is the community created by the Liberty Scholars program. He said coming in and immediately meeting 50 students like him helped with the initial college transition, as it was a network he could lean on right away.
However, the transition into classes — that was a different story for Gonzalez. He said it made him feel the difference in coming from a large, public high school lacking the resources to provide one-on-one attention that smaller, private schools might be able to afford their students.
At the end of the day, they’re just ahead,” Gonzalez said. “It’s kind of like a curve that you have to catch up to. The University can’t slow down to the point where the private school kids are like, ‘Why am I here?’ And they can’t speed it up, so it’s a transition. You’ve gotta kind of find a middle ground, even if that’s putting more hours in than everybody else.”
His advice for other Liberty Scholars? Live in the moment during your first year and don’t take your first quarter too much to heart, especially if you don’t do great on those first midterms.
Additionally, Gonzalez has some advice for how the rest of the Drexel community can approach students from non-traditional backgrounds.
“A lot of kids who are from my background that are from where I’m from, they feel out of place here,” he said. “They feel like they’re not supposed to be here.
“I think it’s a collective effort to make everyone feel like they should be here.”
For recent graduates Michelle Torelli (BS chemical engineering, MS environmental engineering ’18) and Shahmar Beasley (BA political science and anthropology ’18) college was a very go-it-alone experience.
Both were first-generation traditional college students who relied heavily on the Liberty Scholars program to help them navigate and end up where they are today.
“At home, I don’t have anyone to look back on when it comes to college or engineering,” Torelli, who now works full-time in the field, said. “So mentorship was an important thing for me in the Liberty Scholars program.”
“When I first came, I tried to do a little bit too much,” added Beasely, citing that he didn’t have anyone back home to ask about how to best become acclimated to campus life. “I joined the mock trial team literally a couple weeks after I got to campus. It’s very intensive — you have to travel a lot, you have to study up a lot and you have to memorize literally these long scripts of text. So my first quarter, I kind of struggled, but the Liberty Scholars program was very helpful for me. They let me know there were a ton of resources available if I needed tutoring or anything. Granted, the only thing I really needed to do was just drop mock trial.”
Being first-generation didn’t make these former students think twice about taking on double majors and doing whatever it took to get through the rigorous coursework needed to complete their degrees on time. For Torelli, this included taking over 20 credits during more than one term of her college career.
"A lot of people say I take initiative and am very determined,” she said. “If I was someone who was a little different, I probably would have gotten the traditional bachelor’s degree and minored in something else because I was told it would be very difficult to accomplish otherwise.”
This determination, as well as her previous co-op experience, is also aiding Torelli in the workforce. But being first-generation also means she’s the first in her family to have a job backed by her college degree, which can sometimes feel alienating alongside coworkers with generations of engineers in their families. For this reason, Torelli said it would be help full to have more Liberty Scholars program resources targeted for post-graduation, as well as mental health.
“A lot of us have bad problems at home,” she said of the latter. “You’re told in college to be professional — do this, do that — and you don’t want to bring up personal things.”
Despite these afterthoughts, neither student would trade a minute of their college experience and thank the Liberty Scholars program for the opportunity to have them.
“Absolutely not,” Torelli said when asked if she’d be where she is today without the program. “My trajectory would have been to go to community college and then figure it out from there.”
“There’s a ton of opportunities here,” said Beasley, who has recently been accepted into Drexel’s Kline School of Law and is waiting to hear back from other law schools. “Pretty much anything that you want to do, you can do at Drexel.”
Looking forward to the future of the program, Millonde plans to make a few adjustments to the program to focus its philosophy even more on building community and instilling self-advocacy.
For that reason, future cohorts will be assigned to live on campus throughout their Drexel careers.
“We do know there is a difference in students’ performance when they’re commuter students verses living on campus,” she said. “We want to make certain that we’re giving them all the advantages to take advantage of everything that’s happening here on campus, rather than worry about commuting back and forth. And sometimes our students have some family responsibilities that can tear at their hearts and pull them away. We’re hoping that being able to keep them more focused will help with that part as well.”
Additionally, the program will soon be housed under Enrollment Management and Student Success in the soon-to-be Center for Inclusive Education and Scholarship. Millonde will partner with Tasha Gardner, a current director of the Center for Learning and Academic Success Services under Student Life, who is the founding director of the new Center. Being more intertwined with existing resources will help Millonde do more programming for Liberty Scholars, including for post-graduation opportunities.
“We’re trying to make certain that, when they go into the work force, that their experiences here can translate into them going into the work force with confidence and understanding that they earned their seat at the table,” she said.
To do this, Millonde is looking to the rest of the Drexel community for help. She especially needs more faculty and staff members to lend their expertise and lead some of these workshops.
The more support the community can provide these students, the more the University benefits from hearing their voices and learning about their experiences, Millonde said.
“[The Liberty Scholars program] helps broaden people’s perception of the demographic of this type of student,” she said. “Low income, many first-gen, many students of color and they are sharp. I think it helps to enhance everyone’s experience in the classroom.”