Promoting Student Success: Speaks With Minds Matter

By Megan Driscoll

shari ashton with minds matter students at piper jaffray Please describe Minds Matter's mission for our readers.

Shari Ashton: We are a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to transform the lives of accomplished high school students from low-income families by broadening their dreams and preparing them for college success. This is your 20th anniversary year. What are you doing to celebrate? Do you have any plans to expand?

SA: Our New York City (NYC) chapter is celebrating 20 years of operations and we are hosting our 10th Annual Spring Soiree, which is our largest fundraising event of the year. We will also be hosting several smaller fundraisers throughout the 2011-2012 fiscal year and have redesigned our logo and all marketing materials to reflect this milestone.

Minds Matter has grown into a national organization with eight chapters across the country in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, New York and San Francisco. The national organization is currently considering expanding its operations on the west coast, but no formal plans have been approved. The short-term growth plan aims to expand operations by adding at least one chapter per year over the next three years. Young people from low-income families face many exceptional barriers to college access in the U.S. Can you talk about this problem, and how Minds Matter is working to help overcome it?

SA: As a college readiness, access and success program, Minds Matter works to address the fact that despite their early academic accomplishments, high-achieving, low-income students face many challenges with regard to college matriculation, completion and, by extension, future success. This reality is perhaps best illustrated by recent findings of the Brookings Institute:

'At every step in the process of preparing for, applying to, attending, and graduating from four-year universities, students from poor families are at a substantial disadvantage. They are ill-prepared for college by their high schools; they have less knowledge about and receive less help in searching for appropriate schools and filling out the application forms; and they have more difficulty applying for and receiving financial aid (which they need more than do students from wealthier families). Thus, like preschool education and K-12 education, the nation's colleges and universities contribute less than they might to the economic mobility of disadvantaged students.' Please tell our readers more about the sophomore, junior and senior programs that make up the core of Minds Matter. What sorts of activities do students participate in for each of the programs, and what are the program goals?

SA: To ensure that Minds Matter reaches the most dedicated, talented and deserving students, acceptance into Minds Matter is dependent on a rigorous and highly competitive application process. Each Minds Matter student is assigned a pair of mentors, with whom they meet nearly every week of their sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. During these coordinated sessions, mentors and their mentees follow additional Minds Matter volunteer leaders through an organized curriculum. In the sophomore and junior programs, mentees select and apply to summer academic programs. During the ensuing two high school summers, mentees attend the academic programs, funded entirely by Minds Matter with significant scholarships and financial aid from the programs. These summer academic program destinations include Harvard, Columbia, Choate, Exeter and Summer Discovery France and Australia. As high school seniors, mentees are guided through the college application process, including school selection, interview preparation and support navigating financial aid and scholarships. Once applications have been submitted, mentees discuss college life, personal finances, career interests and resumes.

In addition to the programming at mentoring sessions, students receive SAT/ACT test preparation and writing and critical thinking (W&CT) instruction. These programs occur either before or during the mentoring sessions and are guided by Minds Matter-trained volunteers. The test prep instructors and writing counselors work with mentees to strengthen their standardized test performance and develop their writing and critical thinking skills. The combination of individualized mentor support and group test and W&CT instruction that Minds Matter offers is designed to give students the resources, information and support that they need to gain admission to, enroll in and succeed at four-year colleges. How would students who are interested in participating go about learning more about Minds Matter? Do they have to start as sophomores, or can they begin in the junior or senior programs?

SA: The majority of applicants come from high schools where we have strong collaborative partnerships with guidance counselors who advise their qualified students to apply to Minds Matter. Students in NYC apply in the spring of their freshman year of high school. They are accepted directly into the sophomore program; since the program is based on an intensive 3-year curriculum, Minds Matter of NYC does not accept applicants for admission into the junior program.

Those interested in applying should visit our website for basic information on the program and application process. The application process requires that students be nominated by their guidance counselors and that they submit a comprehensive application - which includes essays, short answers, high school transcripts and family income documentation - to the evaluation committee. An interview is also required.

The average incoming GPA among our students is 3.6 (on a 4.0 point scale) and the average adjusted family income is approximately $23,000. Many students are the first in their families to attend college, and virtually none of them have parents who are college graduates.

minds matter students at the nasdaq closing bell ceremony Can you share any specific success stories of students who have completed the Minds Matter program?

SA: Andrea Finnigan was a hard-working and motivated student in high school, but was not familiar with the rigors of preparing for college. When her guidance counselor approached Andrea at the beginning of her sophomore year with information regarding Minds Matter, Andrea was intrigued. She submitted an application, hoping that participation in the program would provide her with the necessary tools and experiences to make a difference in her college prospects. As a student enrolled in Minds Matter from 1997-2000, she attended two summer programs: the Loomis Chaffee Summer School and the Cornell University Program for High School Students. After earning a B.A. from New York University and an MPA from Cornell University, she currently works in financial services and has come full circle with Minds Matter, serving as a volunteer on the New York City Executive Committee. She has been the Co-Director of the Alumni Program for Minds Matter of NYC for the past two years. Her two sisters are also graduates of the Minds Matter program and the youngest is now a volunteer mentor in the junior program.

In her own words:

'Minds Matter was pivotal in preparing me for college. Very few of my high school peers had the opportunities that I did due to my involvement in the program. Minds Matter expanded my scope of the world and the range of possibilities available in it.' What types of opportunities are there available for someone who is interested in volunteering with Minds Matter, and how can volunteers sign up?

SA: Those interested in volunteering with Minds Matter can do so in a variety of ways:

Mentor: Mentors are college graduates working or attending graduate school in New York City. The time commitment for mentors is approximately 3-4 hours a week during the school year. Each mentor is paired with a co-mentor and together they meet with their mentee for 2 hours nearly every Saturday to work on summer program and college applications. Due to school holidays, there is an average of three Saturday sessions per month.

  • PSAT/SAT Instructor: PSAT/SAT Instructors guide students through a structured program for two hours every Saturday. SAT instructors work with junior students from November through May and PSAT Instructors work with sophomore students from February through May.
  • W&CT Consultants: Each volunteer is grouped with several students to help take the students' writing skills from the basic to the intermediate and advanced levels. In addition to leading small group discussion around writing at Saturday sessions, these volunteers also review weekly essay assignments and participate in the review of summer program and college applications.
  • Short Term Opportunities: While many of the volunteer opportunities involve a commitment of a year or more, there are also short-term options. We regularly organize both college and career panels to educate Minds Matter students. There are also interview workshops and resume review sessions in which we welcome short-term volunteers. In addition to these existing workshops, we continue to develop new workshops for students.
  • Leadership Volunteer Positions: There are Minds Matter leadership positions at both the NYC and National levels. These include specific roles in fundraising, finance, marketing and technology. Minds Matter also seeks to diversify its Board of Directors and regularly recruits independent members for the Board in both advisory and voting capacities.

People interested in volunteering can complete an application on our website. is making a donation to Minds Matter. Can you tell us how the funds will be used?

SA: The funds received from will be used for general programming expenses, which include costs incurred for summer program tuition and travel. We also provide a small stipend for incidentals while students are away at the summer programs. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about Minds Matter and the challenge of giving low-income students equal access to higher education.

SA: Minds Matter of NYC has only two full-time employees and over 400 volunteers. Our Saturday programming sessions are exclusively volunteer led. This provides a unique opportunity for each volunteer to make a significant impact on the organization and the students we serve. Having been involved with the organization since 1998, I feel privileged to be part of something that has a uniquely tangible and direct impact on our NYC high school students. Our organization continues to provide deserving students with the academic skills and resources to gain admission to competitive four-year institutions of higher learning, thrive both personally and academically while in college, and pursue successful careers upon graduation. We are thrilled to be celebrating our 20th anniversary this year with the staff, volunteers and most importantly, our mentees.

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