Although Rhode Island has many prestigious colleges and universities, it also bears an eye-opening number of low-income children struggling to achieve enrollment within those – or any, for that matter – higher education institutions.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (2009-2011), 38% (83,363) of Rhode Island’s children are classified as low-income, which is defined as “income below 200% of the federal poverty level.” In addition, 83% (18,501) of children whose parents do not have a high school degree live in low-income families, while 61% (25,883) of children whose parents have a high school degree but no college education live in low-income families. And yes, it’s easy to brush past these numerical findings, but one must challenge oneself to see the faces behind the facts. This is Rhode Island, and these are its children.
While many factors contribute to why so many of the state’s children fail at enrolling in college, Francesca Zetar, Program Coordinator for the non-profit College Visions, believes two primary influences afflicting children are an absence of parental experience within the higher education process and a lack of financial support. The two combine to create a socioeconomic status that can feel impossible to escape.
However, as a first-generation graduate from Brown and someone who “received a lot of help from organizations with planning for college,” Zetar proves it’s possible, and now she’s giving back through her work with College Visions.
Started in 2004, College Visions is a non-profit organization dedicated to “empowering low-income and first-generation college-bound students to realize the promise of higher education by providing advising and resources to promote college enrollment, persistence and graduation” – a typical in-a-nutshell mission statement, really, though College Visions’ methods are far from typical. “Each of our advisers actually have a certain number of students,” says Zetar. “Most of us have 18 students, and we work very closely with them, meet with them one-on-one, really get to know them. We help them with resume writing, college essays and we also take them on college visits. Then we move right into the financial aid and FAFSA. We walk with them
every single step.”
But again, these kinds of articles can be easily waved away, as it’s a problem without a face or a name, and even Zetar’s above quote refers to this demographic as “them.” So the question must be asked: Who are they?
Anta Touray and Veronica Zambrano Coffie are among College Visions’ most recent batch of students successfully scoring admission into college. By the time of publication, Touray will have already spent her summer at Barnard College in New York, while Coffie will be finalizing preparations for entering into Guilford College in North Carolina. Both Coffie and Touray received full scholarships. “For me, it’s a dream come true,” says Coffie. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college.” Laughing, she adds that it didn’t seem “realistic to come here, to the United States, two years ago, from an island, learn English and then work two jobs, deal with culture shock and still make it to a four-year institution. But I really, really wanted to go to college, that was my priority, and now it’s happening. I can’t believe it!”
Touray echoes Coffie’s sentiments, adding that she’s actually “an independent,” proving that no two individuals can fit within the same template. For that reason, College Visions tailors their curriculum for each child, both challenging and supporting the individual according to their specific situation.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect student, and [College Visions] recognizes that,” says Touray. “They help each person get to where they want to go, but they say, ‘Okay, you want to go to Harvard? You have to do this, this, this, this.' They lay it all out and challenge you to push yourself for those goals."
"And they are very involved." says Coffie. "Calls on a regular basis, emails all the time, Facebook messages, constant reminders - and if our essays or work aren't good enough, they'll tell us. Sometimes it hurts to hear it, but they don't baby us. No, they empower us."
For children lacking the familial and financial support needed to rise above their social predicaments. College Visions is a crucial stepping stone. The non-profit organization bridges that gap between Rhode Island's surprisingly large number of low-income first-generation students and their dreams of higher education.
"And for a lot us, [College Visions] is more like a family." says Tourary. "They don't let us slip through the cracks."
If interested in supporting College Visions, thus helping others like Coffie or Tourary, donations are accepted through, the organization's website.