‘A certain spark’
The Ellen Knowles Harcourt Scholarship Fund provides access to a TCNJ education for low-income students who have overcome great personal challenges.
Nine-year-old Anna Poruks’ life turned upside down following her parents’ divorce in 2002. But before she could adjust to a new routine of shuttling back and forth between parents each week, things took a turn for the worse when her father dropped out of her life altogether. That thrust Anna’s mother into the role of sole provider for Anna and her sisters. “Mom always had problems with alcohol use,” Anna explained; the stress of working two jobs to keep a roof over her children’s heads only drove her mother deeper into that addiction. The problem came to a head during a ski trip the family took some time later with the mother’s new boyfriend. The children spent the day on the slopes, while the adults stayed in the bar, Anna recalled. “Riding home in the car that day was one of the scariest moments of my life.” Halfway back, she had to take the wheel and drive. She was 12 at the time.
“At that point I told myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” She reached out to her aunt and uncle, who welcomed Anna and her two sisters with open arms. A few years later, when Anna began talking about attending college, her aunt and uncle again said they would help in any way they could. But having their own children’s tuition to pay, they told Anna she’d likely need to limit her search to community colleges. She scoffed at the idea. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to community college. I want to do something great with my life,’” she remembers. “And so that became my motivation to push myself even harder. I was going to show them that I could get into a great college.” She just had no idea how she would be able to afford it.
For the last 13 years, The Alfred Harcourt Foundation has provided scholarships to low-income TCNJ students who exhibit academic potential and who have overcome great personal challenges. The fund, which is named for Ellen Knowles Harcourt, the late wife of Alfred, one of the founders of the publishing firm Harcourt Brace, provides recipients $8,000 per year for four years of study. Since 2000, nearly 40 students have earned their TCNJ degree in large part because of the foundation’s generosity.
Recently, the foundation doubled the number of scholarships it awards to TCNJ students (as of Academic Year 2012–13, there are 25 students in the program). That decision was made in large part because of the College’s record of success in graduating Harcourt recipients, Peter Jovanovich, the foundation’s president, said. “We seek students from the underserved high schools in America who show the potential for success…[and] TCNJ, amongst all the institutions we work with, has proven to be the best at finding and graduating our types of students.”
According to the foundation’s website, a Harcourt Scholar is someone who shows “a certain spark or edge”—a student “who, given a chance, can overcome great difficulties.” The award is need-based, so fiscal issues are a common denominator among all recipients, said Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Magda Manetas, who coordinates the Harcourt program at TCNJ. But money problems are seldom the only difficulties Harcourt recipients face in their quest to better their lives by receiving a college education.
For Vianna Fagel ’13, the challenges stem from having to declare herself financially independent, at age 17, from an alcoholic mother. (Fagel’s father had passed away four years prior.) “I realized I had to get away,” she said of her decision to leave her troubled home. “I wasn’t going to be able to do anything with my life if I stayed.”
Despite such personal turmoil, Fagel somehow managed to do well in high school, which helped her qualify for the maximum amount of financial aid possible through Pell and Tuition Aid Grants. She also received a New Jersey Foster Care Scholarship. But Fagel said that without the Harcourt Scholarship, she likely couldn’t have attended TCNJ, which was “always [her] first-choice” school.
“I’ve loved every minute of being at TCNJ,” she said prior to Commencement, as she was busily applying for jobs in data analysis or theater management (the math and statistics graduate was also a four-year member of TCNJ Musical Theater). Asked about the impact the Harcourt Scholarship had on her life, Fagel said, “When I think back to where I was five years ago, my life was a mess…. I wasn’t happy, I had no money, and no hope of going to college. And now I’m a very happy person. I’ve had a wonderful four years here.”
TCNJ’s Harcourt recipients have access to a support system that helps them adjust to and cope with the rigors of college. For the past decade, Manetas has served as the primary adviser to the students; this past year, Sean Stallings, executive director of residential education and housing, began assisting her. Together they “provide holistic—what I call developmental—advising,” Manetas explained. “Everything is appropriate for us to talk about, whether it be academic strategies, problems at home requiring their attention, health issues, or financial challenges.” The pair’s guidance helps ensure each Harcourt recipient stays on track to graduate within four years, before their scholarship runs out. Jovanovich says putting a time limit on the scholarship helps. “In my experience, the discipline of four years gets everyone to focus,” he said. “I think that’s part of the reason why we’re so successful.”
Another reason for that success is the “supportive approach” Manetas has brought to her work with current Harcourt students and graduates, Jovanovich added. “She’s the patron saint of this whole enterprise.” Harcourt Scholar Sade Baker described her favorite adviser another way: “Magda? She’s amazing. She’s my mentor. My idol. When you talk to her, you feel empowered—like you can do anything.”
Baker migrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2009 with her father, who wanted to be closer to his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Sade’s father couldn’t find work due to the recession, he had to return to Jamaica—leaving his daughter behind with a grandmother she barely knew in a country she wasn’t accustomed to. “That was difficult,” Baker admits now. “I wanted to be back in my comfort zone…. I wanted my life back.
“Not wanting to be in a place makes it difficult to excel, because you’re constantly thinking about how much better it would be to be somewhere else,” she continued. “So I had to overcome that, and I realized, if I’m not going anywhere, I might as well make the best of it.” She knew college would help in that endeavor, but also realized she couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t qualify for a loan since her father had no credit history. So she spent her weekends working and writing scholarship application essays. She figures she asked her high school teachers “probably about a billion times” for help, but that persistence paid off when TCNJ’s admissions office and the Harcourt Foundation took notice.
Baker is scheduled to graduate with an accounting degree next spring, but has discovered her true calling lies in education and service. Her freshman Community Engaged Learning assignment required her to volunteer in a middle school in Trenton, and she liked it so much that she still tutors there. “Through my service, I’ve learned that I love teaching. I love the classroom. I love the kids. I love the feeling of them knowing something new after I leave,” she said, adding, “I feel that if my purpose is not to help others, then why am I here?” She plans to apply to Teach for America or pursue an MAT after she graduates. The accounting degree is her safety net, but it’s already come in handy. Her father, who eventually did find work and now lives full time in the U.S., recently enrolled at DeVry. “He called me yesterday for help with his accounting homework,” Baker said, laughing. “It was cute.
“Being at TCNJ made me realize there is so much at your fingertips,” she continued. “Being able to work in the middle school, and go to New Orleans and Atlanta to do service with the Bonner program—I would never have had these opportunities if I hadn’t come here. And Harcourt got me here. I’m so thankful for that.”
Jovanovich, a retired publishing executive who does his foundation work pro bono, said one of the most rewarding aspects of his role is meeting with each scholarship recipient and watching them grow into adulthood and graduate from college, despite facing such “tremendous” challenges. “There’s nothing more heartwarming,” he said. But those yearly meetings can sometimes remind him that, “For every Harcourt scholar at TCNJ, there are another 10 behind them…who could also use our help but who we just don’t have the money to support.”
Anthony Grullon ’13, of Patterson, NJ, knows he is one of the lucky ones who “made it out.” The first in his family to attend college, Grullon graduated in May with an engineering management degree. His plan four years ago was to one day get a job in the tech sector “and probably make decent ‘bank.’” But the exposure he got to community service at TCNJ changed his focus. “I found my passion in hybrid nonprofits,” he said, referring to organizations that leverage public-private partnerships to support the common good. As an undergrad, Grullon interned with the NJ Redevelopment Authority, an organization that revitalizes urban communities, and also cofounded a nonprofit that refurbishes and sells high-end clothing to support urban education (that venture has raised close to $15,000). Grullon said those experiences made him realize he wanted to “make a living and make a difference” after graduating. His job at Product RED—an organization that helps fight the spread of AIDS in Africa (and the “holy grail” of hybrid nonprofits, says Grullon)—allows him to do that.
Yet, even with the international reach of the work he is doing, Grullon hasn’t forgotten his roots. He is committed to showing the younger generation in his home community that they too can make it out if they persist. “If I don’t, who will?” he asked, before adding, “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without TCNJ, and I wouldn’t have been at TCNJ without Harcourt.”
“The College is incredibly grateful for The Alfred Harcourt Foundation’s continued support of our students,” said John P. Donohue, vice president for college advancement. “The transformational nature of having a college degree in today’s world cannot be overstated, and it is through the generosity of gifts such as The Ellen Knowles Harcourt Scholarship Fund that TCNJ can further its efforts in providing access to higher education to deserving students from our most underserved populations.”
And what of Anna Poruks, who knew she was destined to attend a “great college” and do “great things” if she could only find the means? She’ll begin her junior year at TCNJ in the fall, thanks in large part to her Harcourt Scholarship. She has also reunited with her mother, who is now sober. “She slips up sometimes, but I can tell she’s trying,” said Poruks. “I know it’s something she’s going to struggle with for the rest of her life.” Poruks, a psychology major, plans to get a PhD in the field after graduating, and said she wants to specialize in addiction therapy. “It’s what I know. I understand how addiction is something that loved ones go through and have no control over, and I want to be able to help people who have gone through similar situations to mine.”
Posted on June 11, 2013