A Degree of Opportunity
An SJU program provides talented, underserved students the resources to realize their dreams of attending college.
Kristen A. Graham
Diamonique Drummond ’15 (B.A.) was a freshman at Central High School in Philadelphia when she heard about a program — and a scholarship — that would change the course of her life. It was important to her family that she pursue higher education. Her father didn’t go to college, and her mother finished a degree while Drummond was earning hers. But the cost of a bachelor’s degree seemed out of reach.
The bright, motivated young woman applied for SJU’s Ignatian College Connection (ICC), a program named for St. Ignatius Loyola — founder of the Society of Jesus — and designed to prepare high school students from underrepresented communities for college success. The ICC embodies Saint Joseph’s mission to be an “inclusive and diverse community that educates and cares for the whole person.”
If Drummond excelled in the high school program, she knew she might earn one of the four-year ICC scholarships the University awards to students with extraordinary promise. She was accepted and spent three weeks every summer on Hawk Hill in the ICC enrichment program for high school students as well as many weekends in ICC college awareness classes.
“It was my first taste of what college was like,” Drummond says. “It was such a good experience.”
Drummond wanted to study film in college and initially set her sights on UCLA. But after her ICC experience in high school, she decided to apply to Saint Joseph’s, and based on her successes, won an ICC scholarship that provided her with eight semesters of tuition. Accepted to nine schools, she selected Saint Joseph’s, in part because of the commitment it had already shown her through the ICC, Drummond says.
Once at the University, she threw herself into campus life, participating in the SJU Black Student Union, holding multiple internships, studying abroad in Australia and paying her scholarship forward by mentoring ICC high school students. She double-majored in film and communication studies, and graduated cum laude.
She says she was motivated to do well “because someone else was paying for my education. Anyone could have been given the scholarship, and I was chosen as one of the recipients, so I made sure not to take that for granted.”
"It was my first taste of what college was like."
Diamonique Drummond '15
And now? Drummond is living another dream, working in television and film production in Los Angeles. The credits designate her as a production assistant, and she’s worked on “American Idol,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Basketball Wives” and the People’s Choice Awards. She says her ICC experience still helps her.
“I’m way more organized than I would be otherwise,” Drummond says. “When you do the summer programs, your brain is always running. There’s always an opportunity to learn something. Even now, I’ll seek that out — I look at everything as a learning opportunity.”
The ICC scholarship “made a huge difference in my life,” she continues. “I was given more freedom to focus on my grades, because I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay my tuition.”
George Bur, S.J., a University Trustee and the former rector of Saint Joseph’s Jesuit Community, began the ICC in 2004, to reach out to surrounding communities and grow the University’s population of historically underrepresented students.
“ICC originated under then-University President Timothy R. Lannon, S.J., who helped secure important funding for scholarships,” Fr. Bur recalls. “The program also enjoyed the support of staff and faculty, especially Mimi Limbach, then employed by Admissions. The success of the recent cohorts of ICC students is a consolation to those of us engaged at the beginning.”
In 2007, Jennifer Dessus joined Fr. Bur and now leads the ICC as director of Access Programs within the Office of Inclusion and Diversity. She has tailored the program along the way in response to the needs of students and families.
At the ICC’s heart are its high school programs — which, from September through July, welcome students from underserved communities to campus. This past year, Saint Joseph’s hosted 70 students from the high school class of 2017.
“The numbers keep growing, which is exciting,” Dessus says.
The students come from different backgrounds — public schools, Catholic schools and private schools in Philadelphia and New Jersey. And though the program aims to attract minority students, it’s open to applicants of all ethnicities. The ICC is well-known to many schools in the area, and 13 years in, most of the students come to the program through word of mouth. Academically strong students are welcome, as are those for whom Saint Joseph’s is a bit of a reach.
“We’re helping to connect students academically and socially with resources on campus that facilitate their success,” says Monica Nixon, Ed.D., the University’s assistant provost for inclusion and diversity.
There are SAT prep courses, workshops on the transition to college and time management, a college week where high schoolers can shadow Saint Joseph’s students, and classes on what colleges look for and how to become a stronger student. Families take part, too, with sessions on paying for college and supporting students through the application process.
Writing is emphasized, with college-level expectations. There are even leadership seminars for students to learn about leaders they emulate and how to define their own styles. In the summer, SJU professors teach courses over four weeks. Students get a taste of what to expect in college and what they’re working toward.
Every year, five ICC scholars are chosen to receive four years of full tuition at Saint Joseph’s from among the high school participants. Academic achievement is key but so is participation in service and leadership. Once enrolled at SJU, the scholarship recipients are encouraged to become leaders invested in the campus community.
The faculty who work with ICC students often form friendships with them, writing letters of recommendation for admission to Saint Joseph’s and elsewhere. One of the SAT prep instructors, Desmond Shannon ’10 (B.S.), ’12 (M.S.), is an ICC alumnus who returns to Hawk Hill on Saturdays, even though he has a full-time job.
“For him, it’s about the bigger Jesuit ideals that start to link men and women for others,” Dessus says. “It’s wonderful to see these connections happen organically.”
"The possibility of a college scholarship definitely made me work harder."
Karl Morris '16
ICC scholars often form close bonds at Saint Joseph’s. Sherman Washington ’09 (B.S.), a biology and sociology double major and one of the first ICC scholars, remembers his cohort as crucial to his college experience.
“We were definitely a close group — we ate together, we studied together, we hung out,” says Washington, who is a biotechnician group leader for RotaTeq Manufacturing with Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania, and helps run two side businesses — Common Ground Management, a consulting firm for small businesses, and a fledgling residential cleaning company — in his spare time. He also participates in campus panel discussions that provide information to current ICC parents and students.
Though they are readied for any university experience, many high school ICC students choose Saint Joseph’s. ICC alumnus and psychology major Edian Castro Rivera ’12 (B.S.) was so wowed by the program that he applied early action to SJU. “I was so enamored with the entire campus, the whole feel,” says Rivera, who worked in admissions for Loyola University New Orleans after graduation and now attends graduate school at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business. “I was head over heels.”
For some, the clincher is the ICC scholarship. Others land at Saint Joseph’s even though they don’t receive the scholarship.
Since the ICC program began, 73 students have earned the four-year, full- tuition scholarship, and over 80 percent have graduated within six years — a number that makes Dessus proud. “We’ve had really great outcomes,” she says. The bonds ICC students form enhance those outcomes. They have connected each other to job opportunities.”
When he was in high school at The City School in Philadelphia, Karl Morris ’16 (B.S.) heard about the ICC high school programs through a friend of his family. Free SAT prep? Sign him up. “That was so important to getting into college,” Morris says. “The possibility of a college scholarship definitely made me work harder.”
He became close with Dessus, known as “Ms. Jen,” familiar with the campus (which was practically in his backyard), and comfortable with professors who would help him along his path. There were also experiences that broadened his world — trips to Washington D.C., Baltimore and New York. “Some kids in the program had never seen those places before,” Morris says. “It opened students’ eyes.”
He says he feels lucky to have participated in ICC’s high school programs and then receive an ICC scholarship to Saint Joseph’s, a school he never envisioned himself attending. “Going to college for free has given me such an advantage,” says Morris, who double majored in physics and computer science and now works as a developer at SEI, a financial group in Oaks, Pennsylvania.
At Saint Joseph’s, ICC and Dessus were a lifeline for Morris. “Ms. Jen was a mentor to a lot of us,” he says. “If she saw that someone’s grades were slipping, that someone had a situation that they needed help with, she was always there.”
Morris had health challenges during his time at Saint Joseph’s. As a junior, he became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease. “I needed support to get through that,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, and there were times when I would go to Ms. Jen’s office and just talk about it. She was a great support.”
Also a help were his fellow ICC scholars, some of his closest friends, then and today. Morris is glad to give back by working with ICC high school students when he was at Saint Joseph’s.
For Nixon, the ICC reflects SJU’s goal to be an inclusive and diverse community that educates and cares for the whole person.
“It’s a creative, dynamic program that really speaks to our mission — to work with people who have been underserved in the education system, to introduce students to the opportunities of a Jesuit university experience that will address them as whole people,” she says.
Kristen Graham is a freelance writer.