Pursuing the Dream—The Legacy Continues

Georgetown Community Scholars Program Marks its 50th Anniversary

By Chelsea Burwell (G’16)

Transitioning to College panel
Kawther Berhanu (C'19), Juan Moreno (F’19), Eriss Donaldson (C’19), Hash Singh (C’20), Diego Tum-Monge (C’19), and Vincent Dong (N'19) share their insights about the student experience during the “Transitioning to College” summer program presentation.

In the hours following news reports of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, a wave of rage swept through the Washington, D.C., neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, Anacostia, Shaw, and Columbia Heights—leading to four days of rioting in the nation’s capital. For the District’s Black community, losing King was more than just the death of an icon; it crushed hopes for progress against entrenched racial discrimination.

Though only a bus ride away, Georgetown was far removed from the violence and destruction. Nonetheless, the campus community became galvanized. As then-President Robert Henle, S.J., would later say, “No modern urban university can in conscience ignore the problems of the inner city and urbanization. Let’s divide up the work and get on with it.”

Opening Doors

Educational inequity in D.C. public schools and lack of access to higher education had been one of the flashpoints for the Black community’s frustrations. “The obvious response from Georgetown after the unrest was ‘We are an educational institution—can we open our doors to more students?’” recalls Charles Deacon (C’64, G’69), dean of undergraduate admissions, then early in his Georgetown admissions career.

“This program was an early and direct response to racial injustice. Georgetown had to ask itself, ‘What is our responsibility to D.C.?’ It was justice in action.”

With support from deans, faculty, and staff, Georgetown created the Community Scholars Program, which provided financial and academic support to local black students wanting to attend the university. The first six Community Scholars arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 1968.

“Each of the undergraduate deans dedicated a percentage of their scholarship funds to students from D.C.,” Deacon notes. “Faculty and staff were also encouraged to make contributions from their paychecks into the fund.”

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program is the cornerstone of Georgetown’s commitment to access and affordability—transforming individual lives and the university itself.

“Beyond providing an academic-intensive experience that allowed students to succeed and excel, this program was also an early and direct response to racial injustice,” says Charlene Brown-McKenzie (C’95), director of the university’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access and a former Community Scholar herself.

“Georgetown had to ask itself, ‘What is our responsibility to D.C.?’ It was justice in action.”

Gaining Credibility

For the initial group of Community Scholars, the transition to campus life on the Hilltop was not easy. At the time, Black students made up just 1 percent of total enrollment.

“It was a tremendous culture shock for me,” says Bruce Mason (C’72). “There were so few of us at the time that we naturally banded together.” The small Black student body launched the Black Student Alliance (BSA), which provided influential support for CSP and also raised scholarship funds for the program. 

Student activism from the BSA played a major role in the hiring of Roy Cogdell in 1970 as director of community student programs. The first Black person to hold a high-level administrative position at Georgetown since President Patrick Healy, S.J., Cogdell developed a solid foundation for Community Scholars and worked with groups like the BSA to increase recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff.

“Any institution dedicated to the kind of excellence in education that we stand for at Georgetown must make certain that it doesn’t provide this education only for the few,” Cogdell wrote at the time. “This kind of opportunity has to be available to young people of all backgrounds who are creative, ambitious, and hard-working enough to go through what is necessary to make the best possible use of it.”

The arrival of John Thompson Jr. as Hoya basketball coach in 1972 also made a critical difference for recruitment, highlighting Black excellence at the university.

“Georgetown became an iconic school for Black students because of the exposure and Thompson’s outspokenness on big issues,” says Deacon. “The university gained a level of credibility with the Black community, which had begun with the Community Scholars Program.”

Hungry to Learn

From the start, the Community Scholars Program offered a summer academic program of college-level courses and tutoring for incoming students prior to their freshman year. But staff soon began to realize that more support was necessary. As Cogdell noted, non-classroom issues such as financial pressures could spill over into academic performance.

As the program approached its tenth year, two Georgetown administrators—Anne Sullivan from the College Dean’s office and Sam Harvey, director of the Center for Minority Student Affairs—reshaped CSP’s programming. By the mid-1980s, CSP provided continuous support for students throughout the fall semester of their freshman year. 

Sullivan had joined the university staff after a brief stint as a high school English teacher in D.C. public schools, where she witnessed first-hand the difficulties students faced.

Father Kemp
Father Raymond Kemp (left) leads a discussion with students during the Cura Personalis seminar.

“When I was hired as a full-time teacher, my school was in complete chaos,” says Sullivan, who retired as senior associate dean in 2015. “When I came to Georgetown, I remembered what those high-school classrooms were like and how hungry those students were to learn.”

Sullivan and Harvey successfully advocated for continued institutional support throughout the Scholars’ college careers. “Because we were just beginning to strengthen their skills, we couldn’t throw them into a sink-or-swim environment,” she says.

CSP has continued to evolve, adding more staff, instructors, and counselors, and expanding its reach to first-generation college students from underrepresented groups throughout the country. It is now housed within the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA), the successor to the Center for Minority Student Affairs.

Today, the program provides comprehensive academic, financial, and social support for a cohort of about 75 incoming students each year. Students, mostly from under-resourced schools, are chosen based on their academic achievements, personal initiative, and service. In 2016, Georgetown established the Regents Science Scholars Program for incoming Community Scholars with an interest in the sciences.

Forming a Community

As it has from the beginning, the Community Scholars experience begins with a five-week summer academic program to aid the incoming students’ transition to university life. Students live together in Copley during the summer term and participate in group activities designed to build supportive relationships.

Hashwinder Singh (C’20) remembers feeling an immediate connection with his fellow Scholars when he arrived on the Hilltop two summers ago. Growing up in a low-income household in Tacoma, Washington, he came to Georgetown with an interest in studying government as a way to address issues facing low-income people of color.

His summer session began the day after the shooting of Alton Sterling, an unarmed Black man, by Baton Rouge police—an event that sparked protests by Black Lives Matter and other civil-rights groups. “In high school, I had always wanted a space to outlet my frustrations about these things, and I finally could talk about it with my classmates at Georgetown,” Singh says.

“It was an emotional and sobering moment, and I was humbled to be around so many amazing people from different walks of life. I built some of my closest friendships that day.”

Scholars also form lasting bonds with the faculty members who teach during the summer session. As CSP Academic Director Elizabeth Velez (G’83) explains, every student takes two classes: a writing course and a course assigned by the dean of the school they are entering.

“I developed a strong mentor-mentee relationship with Professor Velez,” says Donna Hernandez (F’13), now a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department. “She really took the time to read our essays and critique them in a way I’d never been critiqued before. It wasn’t just correcting the grammar, it was correcting the ideas—pushing you to be more of an analytical thinker.

“Being exposed to that type of mentorship, you realize that learning is not necessarily about getting a top score on your next exam; it’s understanding how you’re growing and developing as a student,” Hernandez adds.

Velez, who has been associated with the program for 38 years, says the students keep her coming back each year—in fact, she admits that she’s reluctant to retire. “These students are motivated. They have already taken advantage of what’s available in their communities. And for some, that wasn’t a lot. They are hungry to do intellectual work.”

“This is one of the most profound teaching experiences you can have,” she says.

Unique Pressures

While all Georgetown undergraduates feel pressure, Community Scholars often face issues not experienced by their fellow students.

“Many have responsibilities at home still,” says CSP Director Devita Bishundat. “They are taking care of their families long-distance. Many of them worked in high school, so their income was part of the family budget. Now it’s gone. Some students are still sending money back home.”

Bishundat connects students with academic, social, and health resources and staff within CMEA, such as psychologist Dr. John Wright, and across campus. “My role here is helping students with their Georgetown journey, and to walk that journey with them,” she says.

“We’re engaged with the students,” adds Velez. “I don’t like to intrude on their lives, but we let them know we’re available. It’s also about trust—teacher-to-student and student-to-student. I don’t know how it happens, but they believe it and they live it out.”

Luis Gonzalez (C’19) came to Georgetown because of its Jesuit values—specifically, the university’s support of students’ well-being and focus on cura personalis. As an undocumented student, however, he was apprehensive. “For me, a big part of my experience is as an undocumented student, but I didn’t have to think about it too much because of the robust level of support from CMEA, the dean’s office, and the provost’s office,” Gonzalez says.

That kind of robust support was critical for Toddchelle Young (C’12), who almost left Georgetown shortly after she arrived from New Haven, Connecticut.

Fortunately, during her summer orientation, Young had grown close with members of her cohort and her resident director, Minnie Annan (C’05, G’06). “I remember when she came the very first day, and she was a ball of nerves,” Annan says. “Every night she would come to my room, just sit on the floor, and we’d talk. She really became like my little sister.”

Young worked closely with Community Scholars and CMEA staff throughout the summer. “They were literally my lifeline,” she says. She went on to become a resident assistant and then resident director, receiving the Landegger Award for Service in 2012. Following her graduation from Georgetown, Young earned a Master of Public Health in Sociomedical Sciences from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Healy Lawn
Members of the newest Community Scholars Program cohort on Healy Lawn.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to do so many things that I never would have imagined doing had I not been a Georgetown student and a Community Scholar,” says Young, now director of research at Georgetown’s Red House and the Hub for Equity & Innovation in Higher Education.

‘Thank You for Coming Here’

After 50 years, the Community Scholars Program continues its mission of making a Georgetown education accessible for students from marginalized populations. What began as a direct and immediate response to racial injustice and social unrest in D.C. has become a model for higher education. The program has a 92 percent graduation rate—far above the 59-percent national average and close to Georgetown’s overall rate of 94 percent.

“The students have fought through great adversity to be here,” says English faculty member Christopher Shinn. “It makes me appreciate what Georgetown offers our students and what immense creative talent and diversity CSP students bring to the Georgetown community.” Shinn says that teaching the CSP Writing and Culture course “is truly the highlight of my year.”

In her remarks at this year’s welcome dinner in July, Elizabeth Velez emphasized to the Scholars that they give as much or more to Georgetown as Georgetown gives to them. “You all had a lot of choices, and you could have gone a lot of different places. Knowing a little bit about who you are, I just want to say, ‘Thank you for coming here.’”