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Mentor Guides, Reassures New Students

In her three years as a student at Manchester Community College, Isis Murillo Bravo has requested more financial aid, struggled with several classes and dropped four, disliked a professor and questioned her competence for college-level work. She’s also worked full time, lived in her own apartment and worried about how she’d pay for college.

Bravo mentors several students like her – most first-generation, low-income students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants unfamiliar with the American college system. She moved to East Hartford from Peru at 13 to live with her father. His refusal to provide the tax return information necessary for Bravo to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prevented her from attending college right after high school. Instead, she worked during a gap year and eventually convinced her stepmother to give her the tax return data she needed to complete the FAFSA.

When mentoring prospective students last summer and first-year students this fall, she drew from her own challenges.

“A lot of them are going through this thinking they’re the only ones struggling,” Bravo says. “I don’t want these students to think they’re not college material. It all comes down to the resources they had in hand. I’ll send emails saying, ‘We’re all struggling. I still struggle. It’s not meant to be easy.’”

Bravo works as a mentor in Achieve Hartford’s Summer Transition and College Persistence programs, which provide students from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor mentoring support in the summer before college and their fall and spring semesters of their first year. She’s guided them to adjust to college expectations, where their professors won’t get after them if they miss class or an assignment. At the same time, she’s told them: If they need help from their professor or academic support services, all they have to do is ask. She’s told them about college resources, including staff who help students apply for food assistance benefits and scholarships.

One of her mentees, who had moved from El Salvador three years earlier, lacked the English language fluency to do well in the five courses in which he had enrolled. Bravo took him to the international student office and attended the appointment with him, acting as morale support and a translator. He learned he could enroll in English as a Second Language classes for which he was eligible for financial aid. He dropped his college classes and, with help from the international student office, the college waived the $50 fee per class. Once he reaches English 101 proficiency, she says, he plans to re-enroll.

Several of her mentees are working full- or part-time and caring for family while attending college with little to no family support. When she asked them at a recent mentee meeting to write down on a note card something they wanted to brag about, she says, “everyone had a really hard time acknowledging their successes. We have a couple of students who are bilingual. They didn’t see that as a strength. It was very eye-opening to have these conversations.”

She pointed out that just still being in school was something to be proud of, that some were artistic, bilingual or working. She encouraged them to take the time to be proud of themselves for being in college, reminding them some of their peers had already dropped out.

One mentee, a Latinx man, texted her afterward to say that because of his upbringing, it’s difficult for him to share his feelings and struggles in front of others. “I told him I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I see my dad not expressing his feelings and that led us to having a negative relationship,” Bravo says. “I try to show him he’s doing the right thing by trying to be more open about his mental health.”

First-Year Student Settles In at MCC

Windsor resident Lisa Chin did not see herself as a future college student a few years ago, but her high school guidance counselor suggested she start small at a community college. She had struggled in high school with undiagnosed ADHD, so she began this fall by taking just two required courses – English and math. She credits her peer mentor with giving her the guidance, practical skills and support she needed to start and become engaged with college.

Before enrolling at Manchester Community College, Chin had never finished an essay, she says. This semester, she has surprised herself by writing an essay a month. Her Achieve Hartford mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, “gives me a lot of tips on how to start that kind of stuff.” Her mentor has taught her how to break the tasks up into manageable chunks from the time she receives the assignment and “not waiting until the last minute. In the past, I had to work against my
brain. My ADHD made me feel like I had to work twice as hard at something.”

Her mentor answered her questions and saw where she struggled. Bravo sat down with Chin and helped her create a time-management schedule for when to do homework for each class, she says. Her mentor taught her to review her completed essays for what worked and what didn’t and coached her on effective proofreading before handing essays in, Chin says.

Chin dropped out of high school and, after deciding a life in retail wasn’t for her, returned a few months later. At college, she says, she initially struggled with imposter syndrome. That changed when she began attending biweekly ‘tea time’ meetings with her mentor and other mentees. Through our Summer Transition and College Persistence programs in partnership with Capital and Manchester Community Colleges, we hire, train and supervise college students to work as peer mentors to first-year, mostly first-generation students. We serve graduates of public schools in Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor; these programs began as ALL IN! Coalition Action Team pilot programs with Hartford students.

“Having that extra support and someone you can go to to ask questions so you don’t feel like you’re alone is really helpful. When you go to college, you’re alone. You don’t feel comfortable asking people for help. The tea time is really helpful. You get to meet people; you get out of your comfort zone,” she says. “I wish everybody had a mentor like Isis.”

With Bravo’s encouragement, she has been attending a campus National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter meetings and a roller-skating party. This has allowed her meet other first-semester students and get to know them. MCC held the New Student Orientation online as a series of sessions. “It was really refreshing to sit down and meet other students,” she says. “You get to talk to people who have the same interests as you.”

Bravo has also guided her through practical steps – helping her register for fall classes during the summer and, this fall, reminding her of the deadlines to submit the FAFSA and register for spring classes.

Having Bravo as her mentor “feels like a friend. You don’t feel like you’re talking to a mentor,” Chin says. “She’s played a really big role into me transitioning into MCC.”

This Giving Tuesday, We’re Grateful for You

In honor of Giving Tuesday, our board is matching private donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000. This is the first time in four years we’re actively seeking individual contributions and we hope you’ll give what you can, no matter the amount, at

Since its founding, Achieve Hartford has worked to serve low-income, underserved people, most of whom are people of color. The pandemic has revealed to the wider population what we knew and have been working to address for 12 years: Children growing up in low-income households have less likelihood of starting and completing college, no matter how hard working and intelligent they are.

“We believe, with the right supports and encouragement, every high school student can get on a path to reaching their potential,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “The students we mentor are grateful to their mentors for helping them beat the odds and start and persist in college. We’re grateful to our funders for helping make our work possible.”

In the words of our mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, a Manchester Community College student, a big part of her job is reassuring first-generation students that their struggles and self-doubt are universal. When they tell her they can’t find the time to do their homework and are ready to drop out, “I calm them down and help them understand those feelings are valid. We all go through them. I make sure they know they’re not alone,” she says. “I tell them, because they’re learning to feel comfortable asking questions, they’re ahead of their peers.”

Nearly 15 Nonprofits in Hartford Now Offer Post-Secondary Prep

The ALL IN! Post-Secondary Supports Network, a group of 14 nonprofits convening since early in the pandemic, collaborates to help Hartford Public Schools (HPS) students prepare for college or career pathways. This PowerPoint details each member’s post-secondary prep program.

Since the pandemic hit in late winter of 2020, HPS school guidance counselors have had their hands full working with students not coming to school, facing economic crises and coping with the deaths of loved ones. Counselors didn’t have time to help all students with post-secondary preparation, and nonprofits struggled to address student needs as well. With the worst of the pandemic over, things are looking up.

“The level of partnership we’re seeing between HPS and partners is at an all-time high,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. “There is such great energy on both sides to try and serve each student’s need when it comes to post-secondary preparation.” 

In weekly meetings through the summer and early fall, the Post-Secondary Supports Network members addressed areas where they overlap and identified gaps in services. Since several groups provide similar post-secondary support services to students, such as help with the FAFSA, college visits and the common app, members shared tips on how they overcame challenges as well as resources that helped their students. 

In the Network’s four-year history, members have brought forth ideas for three out four of the ALL IN! Coalition’s past action teams. First, members suggested the Summer Transition Action Team to the Coalition steering committee, as a way to combat ‘summer melt.’ Second, the Nearlies Action Team targeted HPS high school students whose grades and attendance rates were just shy of the qualifications needed to become Hartford Promise scholars. Hartford Promise now leads that program. Later on, the College Retention action team was suggested, which, similar to Summer Transition, was taken to scale as a program of Achieve Hartford in partnership with Capital and Manchester Community Colleges. 

“The Network acts as both a community of practice and a think tank. By coming together, we hope to make our slice of the nonprofit sector super high-functioning,” Holzer says. 

Always growing, the Post-Secondary Supports Network includes:

ConnCAP, UConn

Career Beginnings, Hartford Consortium for Higher Education

Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs

Hartford Promise 

Urban League of Greater Hartford

Boys & Girls Club of Hartford 

Hartford Public Library

Our Piece of the Pie (OPP)

The Legacy Foundation of Hartford 

Young Women’s Leadership Corps (YWCA)

Blue Hills Civic Association (BHCA)

Center for Latino Progress (CLP)


Achieve Hartford

To read more about each organization’s post-secondary prep program, view this PPT here.

First-Gen Mentor Pays it Forward

When first-generation college student Nadia Zuniga was still in high school, she had a mentor who shared her college experience, offering advice and guidance. So, when the Manchester Community College student learned of the opportunity to mentor first-year students from similar backgrounds, she applied for the job.

“I wanted to give back what I had experienced growing up,” says Zuniga, in her final year at MCC. 

The East Hartford resident lives with her father, who supports her education but doesn’t understand her challenges or know how to guide her. A peer mentor since August 2020, she appreciates being able to vent her frustrations with her peer-mentor friends. Her own struggles with adjusting to college have informed her role as a mentor to students like her, she says.

It’s not uncommon for first-generation students to experience self-doubt and question whether they can handle college-level demands, including academic, time-management and financial requirements. When they learn she’s from a similar background and faces challenging classes but plans to complete her bachelor’s degree, that reassures her mentees they belong in college too.  

She encourages her mentees to seek a tutor at the Academic Support Center if they need extra help, and tells them about her own need for a math tutor. “I try to share my own experiences so they see that I can relate to their struggles and experiences,” says Zuniga, who plans to transfer to Southern Connecticut State University next fall to study speech pathology.

One of her mentees found it difficult to concentrate on their studies at home, so Zuniga told them about how to reserve study rooms available on campus. She instructed another mentee the proper tone to take when emailing a professor, showing the mentee how to write an email like they’re a student writing to a teacher, not a friend to a friend. 

Knowing how busy her mentees are with jobs, classes and homework, she created instructional videos displaying the screens from the campus website to walk students through the steps to reserve a study room, navigate the colleges online system, called Blackboard, and register for classes. She offers to help them live with these tasks, she says, but most students find it’s easier for them to watch the video on their own. 

While only some of her mentees ask questions or reach out for help, she sends all her mentees weekly reminders and informational tips such as news that the FAFSA application period has opened, when to register for classes and the deadline for filing for a transfer. 

When she’s not studying or helping her mentees, Zuniga works as a substitute preschool teacher, is involved with the campus radio station and does volunteer work as a member of the academic honor society Phi Theta Kappa.  

She finds mentoring rewarding, especially when she guides a struggling student to get the support that’s there for them, she says. “It feels good when I am able to make connections, see students succeed and assist them throughout the process.”

NSC Data Are In

How Many Class of ’21 Grads Made it to Community College? 

This summer, Achieve Hartford expanded its Summer Transition program to serve high school graduates from outside of Hartford, including applicants to Capital or Manchester Community Colleges from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor Public Schools.

During the summer, nine peer mentors who attend CCC or MCC or are recent graduates reached out to the students from these six districts who applied to one or both community colleges.  Fifty-nine percent, or 306 students, had at least one substantial interaction with their assigned staff member.

“We’re very happy to be doing this expansion, especially at a time when students really need the extra support services,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs at Achieve Hartford.

This year, 61 percent of the 519 Hartford-area students served this summer enrolled in college this fall, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

This summer, we had the chance to offer mentors to 78 students who enrolled in CCC or MCC in August, shortly before classes started, and we took it. This was something of a failed experiment, Marcelli says, as only 11 students, just 14 percent, engaged with their mentors.

“It is obvious in retrospect that this addition was too late,” he says. “Given only a couple of weeks to do outreach with these new students, you can see very clearly in the data that those students were not engaged. We’ve been told by college partners that while these late-applying students are somewhat more likely to finish the enrollment process, they also have a higher attrition rate.” In the future, we hope to gain data on late-applying students sooner to give us sufficient time to offer meaningful outreach, Marcelli says. 

While our overall numbers grew because we expanded to five additional districts, the number of Hartford Public School applicants shrunk by about one third between 2020 and 2021, from 308 served in the summer of 2020 and 207 served this summer, excluding those added in August.

“We don’t know why this is,” Marcelli says. Based on national reports about the added burden the pandemic has had on low-income and Black and brown communities, we suspect the pandemic’s impact on Hartford families’ income and health played a role.

Nationally, enrollment at two- and four-year public colleges continues to slip, especially at two-year colleges, which dropped by 5.6 percent this year and 9 percent last year, the National Student Clearinghouse reports. Community colleges reported a 6.1 percent plunge in first-year enrollment nationwide. There’s been a 21 percent dip in first-year community college students nationally from 2019 to this year.

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