College access and success program announces new name, advances same mission

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (June 29, 2022): The state’s most comprehensive college readiness program, formerly known as the Onward We Learn of Rhode Island, announced today it has changed its name and brand identity to Onward We Learn.

The announcement follows an eight-month process that engaged over 125 students, staff, alumni, parents and community partners, and signals a renewed commitment to helping thousands of Rhode Island students each year build a personalized pathway to a more successful future.

 

“We believe that this new identity better aligns with our mission, vision and values as the state’s preeminent college access nonprofit. Our mission is the same, yet Onward We Learn reflects our continued work to be more inclusive and to meet students where they are, supporting them on their journeys to be lifelong learners, successful individuals and, in many cases, the first in their families to attend and complete college,” said President and CEO Andrew Bramson.

 

The vast majority – about 70% – of students in Onward We Learn have a traditional four-year college experience. By emphasizing lifelong learning and forward progress, the new name recognizes the changing postsecondary landscape and validates the experiences of hardworking students who instead pursue alternative pathways such as apprenticeships, certificates and stackable credentials.

 

“The data is strong that college continues to be the most effective path to social and economic mobility, especially for students of color. As a student-centered organization that seeks to include all perspectives and experiences, we want to make room for many different pathways as we look to the future,” Bramson said. “Students have a range of postsecondary options, and we want to celebrate pathways that work for them; we must transition from the notion that the classic college experience is an all-or-nothing proposition. The most powerful word in our new name is ‘onward,’ which signifies mobility and trajectory. When you think about college or other postsecondary options, think about Onward We Learn.”

 

The organization, founded in 1989 as the Children’s Crusade for Higher Education, engages students in urban school districts starting in middle school and provides college readiness, career exploration and academic support programming through high school and into college. Advisors work hands-on within schools and after-school programming.

 

“This relaunch marks an exciting new chapter for an organization that has been making a difference for Rhode Island students and families for more than three decades,” said Meg Geoghegan, chair of the Onward We Learn board of directors. “Our impact is felt by the students who receive academic support and college counseling, and as a result become first-generation graduates from competitive universities across the country. It is felt by our families, who access assistance with financial aid and other support services that set their children up for success. And it is felt by our state, which reaps the benefits of this community of talented, innovative and energetic young leaders.”

 

Onward We Learn supports more than 4,000 students in middle school, high school and college each year with one-on-one advising and year-round programs that focus on academic enrichment, social and emotional development, career education, and postsecondary preparation to help them become the first in their families to earn a college degree. Middle schoolers who attend traditional public schools and select public charter schools and independent schools in Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and West Warwick are eligible to enroll in Onward We Learn. Learn more at www.onwardwelearn.org.

Honorific Class of 2022 celebration

We recently celebrated our Class of 2022 Honorific Program graduates with a dinner and presentation of certificates and stoles. We thank Harold M. Horvat, president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board at Centreville Bank, for joining us.

The graduates are headed to Bentley University, Boston University, Brown University, College of the Holy Cross, Emory University, Middlebury College, Northeastern University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Salve Regina University, University of New Haven and University of Rhode Island. Congratulations to all!

High schoolers practice nature photography skills

Students photograph specimens at the Rhode Island School of Design Nature Lab during Project Open Door over April vacation. We thank Taco/The White Family Foundation for providing funding for our students to explore the arts through this program.

Q&A with Accelerate grad Stephanie Vargas Sosa, who will attend Texas Christian University

The Accelerate Program offers Providence high school students an enhanced senior year experience that allows students to jump-start their postsecondary career while completing their high school requirements. Students who successfully complete the program can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost of enrollment for the student or family.

I’m an Accelerate senior of the Class of 2021. I’m also a first-gen student in a computer science major with a pre-med track. I’m not one for traditional academic paths so I wanted to take a “riskier” path for my ultimate goal of going to medical school. But I’m more than a student! I’m also a very fun and outgoing person willing to do anything that can be fun (it has to be healthy and safe though). And as odd as it may seem, I enjoy learning for fun so I spend a lot of time reading or trying new things!

Why did you decide to join the Accelerate Program? 

I decided to join the Accelerate Program because I found that it would be a great opportunity to experience the workload of a full-time college student and it would allow for me to earn many college credits in high school as well.

Please share a memorable moment you have in the Accelerate Program. 

Everything about the Accelerate Program was memorable! Orientation was certainly memorable, as that is when we learned more about each other as well as the work and expectations for us.

What role did College Success Coach Heckerly Flores play in your success? 

Heckerly played a great role in my success during the Accelerate Program and in preparation for college as well. She helped me fill out the FAFSA and always answered any questions I had on anything! She also gave a very valuable piece of advice to us as a class. She insisted that we ask for help whenever we needed it and made sure that we saw all the resources we could use to find help.

What are you most looking forward to in your first year of college? 

I’m looking forward to the experience as a whole. I’m excited to meet new people and find more people of the same major. I also look forward to my growth as a person and student throughout the next four years of college.

What challenges are you anticipating in the years ahead? 

I know that there will be more challenging classes as time goes on and there will be a lot of pressure. However, this is also something I look forward to because more challenges will only help me grow.

What words of advice do you have for the next group of Accelerate seniors (Class of 2022)? 

I would advise the next group of Accelerate students to stay on top of their work and write everything in a sort of planner so that they do not fall behind. I would also like to pass down the advice that was given to me and tell them to ask for help whenever they need it. Most importantly I would say to have fun with it and really enjoy and take advantage of the opportunity! 

Q&A with Accelerate graduate Jason Rodriguez Taveras, who heads to PC this fall

The Accelerate Program offers Providence high school students an enhanced senior year experience that allows students to jump-start their postsecondary career while completing their high school requirements. Students who successfully complete the program can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost of enrollment for the student or family. 

I am a first-generation immigrant who came to the United States when I was 2 years old with my mother and two siblings. My father was unable to come to the U.S. until I was 11 years old. I faced many challenges growing up, which included having to learn both Spanish and English simultaneously and trying to fit in with my family as well as with the people I met at school. In my younger years I was never really comfortable in either space; this was reflected in my behavior as well as my grades throughout elementary and middle school. This changed when I found a second home and family on the eighth-grade wrestling team. It was a place where I was supported as well as held accountable by my coaches, Kevin Hernandez and Bill Fullaway, as well as my teammates. I learned the importance of discipline and how my actions now will inevitably affect my future. My wrestling career was short lived because of a knee condition that effectively took me out of the sport for good. All of a sudden I didn’t have this home anymore, but what I did have was those lessons I learned. So I decided to make the most out of what I had left, and with a knee that prevented me from participating in most organized sports, that was my mind. To do this, I hit the books hard for four years throughout high school and will now graduate with a 92.89 GPA, as well as nearly 30 college credits thanks to the Accelerate Program. This fall, I will be the first person in my family to attend college, and in a few years I plan to be the first to graduate college as well. 

Why did you decide to join the Accelerate Program? 

I heard about the Accelerate Program from a friend of mine, and I thought it sounded too good to be true. But it was true! I saw the opportunity to get a head start in college while also being able to graduate high school normally. It was a very easy decision for me, because it was one I could not let pass me by. 

Please share a memorable moment you have in the Accelerate Program. 

The best moment for me was finishing the second semester and realizing that I have completed nearly a year’s worth of college classes before I had even graduated from high school. Being able to share that with my family and seeing how proud they are has been great. 

What role did College Success Coach Heckerly Flores play in your success? 

Heckerly was by far the most helpful counselor I have had in all of my years of schooling. Heckerly was always there to help me when I needed recommendations, scholarship opportunities, help finding tutors, as well as filling out things like FAFSA, my CSS profile, helping me put together my college essay as well as a financial aid appeal to Providence College, which got me a very well-needed few more thousand dollars in financial aid. Overall, Heckerly has been an overachieving, high-spirited counselor who has been of great help to me; I am sure that without her help I would have not been able to excel in my classes the way I did. 

What are you most looking forward to in your first year of college? 

I am looking forward to being a part of a new community of people that really want to learn. High school was different because there were always a few students who were there because they had to be and they would make the class unpleasant to those of us that did want to be there and learn. 

What challenges are you anticipating in the years ahead? 

I am worried about adjusting to the new environment. I’ve never lived without my parents and so being in a dorm with two people that I don’t know will be a new experience for me and it is something I will have to overcome. 

What words of advice do you have for the next group of Accelerate seniors (Class of 2022)? 

The Accelerate Program will be incredibly difficult if school is not your main focus. Having to apply to colleges, write your college essays, and apply for scholarships and fill out the FAFSA while also having outside responsibilities like family or a job will be extremely difficult. I had many late nights because of this and there were times where I was not as prepared as I should have been for tests and assignments because of my heavy schedule. It is a significant commitment and should not be taken lightly. Other than that, it is a great opportunity if you are able to make the commitment. 

Q&A with Accelerate grad Ashley Asencio, who will attend URI

The Accelerate Program offers Providence high school students an enhanced senior year experience that allows students to jump-start their postsecondary career while completing their high school requirements. Students who successfully complete the program can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost of enrollment for the student or family. 

Hello, my name is Ashley Asencio. Growing up as a first-generation student hasn’t been easy; I have always needed to seek for my own help and wondered if I was making good decisions academic-wise. When an advisor came to my elementary school and spoke to us [about the Onward We Learn], my fifth-grade self knew I had to sign up. I was aware that my parents weren’t going to be able to help me with much of the college process due to the language barrier and them not experiencing college. This was the perfect opportunity for me because not only was I already thinking of the future but I was earning money for going to programs. Looking back, I thank my fifth-grade self for being so aware and getting those papers signed because each and every advisor had played a part in the student I am today. They have guided me in the right path and provided me with so many good information and I know that’s their job, but they make you feel special and one of a kind. They make sure they remind you how amazing you are and that you can reach for the moon if you keep pushing and I thank each and every one one of them for that! 

Why did you decide to join the Accelerate Program? 

I decided to join this program because at the time we were all doing online school and I really loved the feeling of doing school online and having my own schedule. I decided this might be a good decision for me although I was also scared because I wasn’t going to have teachers on me 24/7, which meant I was going to be more independent. I decided why not start my college process early and get a feeling of what fall 2021 could look for me and if I was ready to take that step. 

Please share a memorable moment you have in the Accelerate Program. 

During the college process, I felt myself become so overwhelmed I wanted to give up. I remember being on Zoom with [College Admissions Coach Ana Almeida] and explaining to her my fears of not being good enough for some of the colleges I was applying to and remember myself crying from frustration. She told me everything was going to be fine and that I was a smart young girl with a lot of potential. She was right; I kept bringing myself down and thinking I didn’t deserve what I had accomplished, which made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Ana was always there for me when I needed wise words, as were many other advisors. 

What role did College Success Coach Heckerly Flores play in your success? 

She helped me choose what college was best for me and why it was the best choice to make. 

What are you most looking forward to in your first year of college? 

I’m excited to experience a new environment and living on my own for the first time and really get a feeling of what adulthood can look like for me as well as become more independent. 

What challenges are you anticipating in the years ahead? 

Now that I got the feeling of what college could feel like, I’m not really scared, I’m just scared if I’m going to keep the same habits or become better. I left things for last minute yet finished all my assignments on time. But I want to change that. I don’t wat nto keep that habit because it gives me less time to perfect my work. 

What words of advice do you have for the next group of Accelerate seniors (Class of 2022)? 

At first it might seem like a lot to handle and you might think to yourself, “Why did I join this?!” But trust me, it has been the best decision of my life. Not only was I doing school from home, but I had extra free time for myself. I was able to manage my life the way I wanted to and didn’t have to follow strict rules from teachers. Hearing my classmates complain about how stressful school was made me feel like my classes were easy. But make sure that if you decide to join the Accelerate Program you are willing to communicate with your advisors and seek help when needed or else you’re letting yourself down. 

Q&A with Accelerate graduate Jolade Oshinkalu, who will attend Providence College

The Accelerate Program offers Providence high school students an enhanced senior year experience that allows students to jump-start their postsecondary career while completing their high school requirements. Students who successfully complete the program can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost of enrollment for the student or family. 

My name is Jolade Oshinkanlu. I am an immigrant who came into the U.S. for a better life, good education, and opportunities for my future. My journey has been very hard, but it challenged me into becoming a strong woman of color who strives hard to do her best at everything. I remember several times that I was at the point of giving up, but being able to get up every morning to do my best and make my family proud every time I achieved something great kept me going. I am proud of who I am and where I came from because without the challenges I faced, I wouldn’t have become capable of doing many things, discovering my passions, and be where I am today. 

Why did you decide to join the Accelerate Program? 

I decided to join the Accelerate Program to challenge myself into doing something I have not experienced before. At first, I was scared that I would fail because of the way the program was described to me but then I remembered my mom said, “You never know what you can do unless you give it a try.” This is why I joined the program. 

Please share a memorable moment you have in the Accelerate Program. 

One memorable moment I have in the Accelerate Program is that one of my professors made everyone join different group of people to work together on a project. It was through that project I made friends with amazing people. We decided to hang out in person and had a wonderful experience together. 

What role did College Success Coach Heckerly Flores play in your success? 

Miss Heckerly played a big role in my success. She connected me to different opportunities, never failed to check up on me, and gave me advice that helped me to be here today. 

What are you most looking forward to in your first year of college? 

I am looking forward to discovering new things about myself. I want to try different activities I wasn’t given the opportunity to do because of Covid such as dancing, running, and creating programs for people etc. I also want to meet people coming from different places so that we can share our ideas together and create many wonderful things. 

What challenges are you anticipating in the years ahead? 

Some challenges I am anticipating in the years ahead are being in a new environment without people that I am used to being around with, doing many things by myself as an adult, and making sure that I have good time management. 

What words of advice do you have for the next group of Accelerate seniors (Class of 2022)? 

You can do this! It might feel like you should give up and just stop but I promise you that at the end, it will be worth it and not just for your family, but for yourself. Keep on going for your future dreams and never think that you are alone because there are people who will be there for you and great resources that can help a lot. 

Crusader awarded Fulbright Scholarship

Wila Matos recalls a Onward We Learn-led overnight at the University of Rhode Island as a crucial turning point that put her on a path to discover her love of service, travel, and learning new languages and cultures.

During the event her senior year at The Met School, she and fellow Crusaders sat in on classes, ate in the dining hall, met with multicultural organizations and slept in a dorm room.

“I was deciding between URI and Roger Williams University at the time, and I decided on URI because of the Onward We Learn giving me an opportunity to envision myself there,” she said.

She not only graduated from URI’s Talent Development program with a degree in Africana studies this month, but she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach English and U.S. culture at a university in Brazil next year.

Volunteering to help organize Alternative Spring Break trips – an opportunity for students to participate in service learning – to Atlanta and Baltimore left her wanting to do more work like that.

“It really gave me an idea I wanted to keep volunteering after college. I thought I would do the Peace Corps. l didn’t want to jump into a master’s degree and I still don’t, but I want to be doing something else, learning more and doing something I’m passionate about.”

She took the 2018-19 school year off and worked at The Met School as well as for CAAP at the Onward We Learn. “I thought about: What did I want to get out of my final year?” she said.

She studied abroad in Cape Verde in spring 2020. “It was a really good opportunity to see this is what I love. I love traveling, meeting other people, learning history outside of a book, experiencing different things. When I came back I was really determined I want more of this.”

She contacted Kathleen Maher, assistant director of URI’s Office of National Fellowships and Academic Opportunities, who encouraged her to apply for the Fulbright. It seemed like the perfect fit for her interests. She decided she wanted to go to Brazil.

“I was really pulled by the African history connected to Brazil. It’s the biggest population outside Africa,” she said. She also wanted to learn Brazilian Portuguese.

“I had just come back from Cape Verde was really looking to learn about Portuguese colonization and an experience be able to bring back to Rhode Island,” she said. “There’s a need for Portuguese; it’s the third most spoken in Rhode Island. I’m excited to learn from others. In the U.S. we have this ideology that we know it all or we’re the ones who hold all the information.”

The application process was more than she expected. “I didn’t know what it was or that it was that big or important or prestigious until I applied. The process is intense and I wasn’t ready for that,” she said with a laugh.

“There’s a statement of grant purpose, your ideology, teaching ideology, what you would actually teach in your country,” she said.  “You are teaching English but also American culture because they want to have that exchange of culture. A lot of times, there’s a stigma around America or they only learn about American through the media or pop culture or rap music, and that’s far from what America is.”

She had to write a personal statement and secure three recommendations, then submit the application for review, interviews and the endorsement of a URI committee.

Then came the wait. “It was a long while It was dreadful, honestly. You submit it in October and you don’t find out until January.” The global pandemic also caused delays. “Once I was a semifinalist I was so excited. Shortly afterward I got an interview request from the commission in Brazil. That was in February, and then I had to wait some more.”

She won’t find out where she will be assigned until later this year, but she will be connected to a university, instructing future English teachers. In her proposal she said she wanted to focus on immigration.

“Just like the U.S., Brazil is very diverse and also has had mass migration of other cultures like Japanese and German and I wanted to analyze and investigate and talk about that with my students, talk about the U.S. in that realm.”

Applicants also outline their supplementary project, in which fellows spend 10 hours a week volunteering or teaching a skill such as debate or after-school program or take a college class. She wants to focus on Black women in history, perhaps taking a women’s history class – “There’s not a lot of information out there about the badasses that we are and what we do” –  and will look for opportunities to improve her Portuguese.

“They also ask how we will engage with our community. I probably would join a church and try to take a dancing class because I really like to dance and it’s a really important part of Latino culture in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” where her parents are from.

“You don’t want to be that person who says, ‘I don’t know how to dance,’” she said, laughing.

She is living in Cape Verde teaching English in Praia to continue learning Portuguese and Creole before she leaves for her assignment. She decided not to return for URI graduation this month.

“I had to grieve already that I wasn’t going to walk but I won a Fulbright so I don’t feel too bad,” she joked. There are a few things she misses about Rhode Island, though.

“I’m struggling a little bit; I do get cravings for things only in Rhode Island like Iggy’s. Mexican food Peruvian food, Bolivian food; in the U.S. you have all of that.”

Looking back at her experience in the Onward We Learn, she said she had many good mentors and the programs helped her succeed academically.

“I appreciate everything that the Crusade did for me,” she said, recalling going to Crusade programs on Saturday mornings.

“I enjoyed interacting with staff and other students and I was never really a good reader – I still struggle today with reading – and that was an opportunity to practice my reading because to be honest, nobody at home was doing that for me. My mom worked a ton of hours and my sisters had their own responsibilities. The Crusade gave me an opportunity to practice the skills that I need to be successful,” she said.

“As a kid, obviously, I didn’t see the impact of it. As a kid it was like I really have to be on this computer and read and answer questions?” she said. “Now I look back and I’m like thank God for that. I’m so happy I did it.”

She’s not sure what life holds for after Brazil.“I know you’re supposed to have a five- or 10-year plan; I don’t really know exactly what I want to do but I’m excited to figure that out. I like to try a lot of things and see what best works for me.”

She said whatever job she chooses will be guided by certain core values.

“I care about community and want to do something where I am really helping my community. I am really passionate about Black history and history that’s often not taught in schools. I am passionate about education and the power behind education and making that accessible to all students,” she said.