Four years ago, the quiet, park-like setting and caring community of Alvernia University drew in a shy Kirsy Rosario.
A timid freshman then, she has blossomed into a vivacious upperclassman today, eager to share the virtues of her oft-misunderstood city.
“Reading is a small city with big opportunities,” says Rosario, an accounting major and rising senior at Alvernia University, a private Roman Catholic University in the city of Reading.
While she understands that many view Reading as a left-behind mill town with little opportunity, for Rosario, the future in Reading looks bright.
A first-generation college student who grew up in Reading, she is the child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She looks forward to living and working in her hometown upon graduation.
And that is exactly the kind of outcome that Alvernia University administrators were hoping for when they established the Reading Collegiate Scholars Scholarship Program in 2014, which allows Rosario to attend Alvernia at no cost to her or her family.
Jay Worrall is the Director of the Holleran Center for Community and Global Engagement at Alvernia, which oversees the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program, known as RCSP.
“We talk to Reading-based employers and hear about their need for committed employees,” he said. “The RSCP allows us to step up our game as far as providing educated workers to our community.”
Each year, Alvernia awards 10 Reading high school students a full academic scholarship to the university as part of the RCSP. Each class of 10, as well as each member of each class, is called a cohort.
In order to apply for one of the scholarships, applicants must live in the city of Reading and participate in the RCSP high school program.
In the high school program, Reading high school students are mentored by Alvernia work-study students, who assist them in exploring post-high school options. The high schoolers receive help in applying to colleges, studying for the SATs, and obtaining and applying for scholarships.
“The high school program was really helpful to me,” said Rosario, who attended every day after school. For her, and many of her cohorts, the high school program was their first introduction to college and to Alvernia.
“I came for the tutoring,” she said, “and I found that every time I visited the Alvernia campus, I loved it more and more. I realized that being far from home wasn’t the thing I needed. I could be close and still be independent.”
Others also found the high school program a helpful first step in navigating the complexities they were facing.
“I didn’t know where to begin as far as college,” said Kayleen Torres, a health care administration major at Alvernia and rising sophomore who is a 2022 scholarship cohort. “It wasn’t until I was introduced to Alvernia and then visited the campus that I knew this is where I want to be.”
Both Torres and Rosario now tutor high school students themselves as part of the RCSP work-study program. In addition to their work-study responsibilities, they and their cohorts must maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend donor luncheons, where they interact with those whose contributions are funding their college education.
Donors are a mix of corporations, local institutions and individual donors. Brentwood Industries, Customers Bank and Fulton Bank are just a few of the Reading-area companies that have acted as donors over the past 5 years.
“Being a donor is a very substantial commitment,” said Worrall, “about $70,000 over four years. And what’s fantastic is that we’ve had many donors re-up for another four years after their cohort has graduated.”
“I remember my first donor lunch,” said Rosario. “I was so nervous, I didn’t want to talk too much or too little. But before I knew it, I relaxed and was having a great time. It helps to have your other cohorts there to support and advise you.”
The support of their cohorts is something both Rosario and Torres frequently mention.
“We really keep each other accountable,” said Torres. “We create a family. It’s crazy how attached we get to each other in a matter of weeks. The older cohorts mentor us and we mentor the younger ones. We know how to help and guide them.”
In addition to support from their fellow cohorts, each scholar is assigned a faculty member to help out with academic advising.
“The long-lasting relationships with staff, the faculty, the connections you make, all are so valuable,” said Torres. “We get tips and tricks from different people, including our community mentors.”
Community mentors are Reading-area business leaders and companies. Students are matched with mentors based on their academic and career interests. The mentors, all volunteers, may offer help with things like building connections or working on a resume.
“It can be challenging for someone in their 50s or 60s to connect with someone who graduated the year before” said Worrall, “so we offer them training. Each relationship is so individual. But our primary hope is that the community members work together with the students to help them find employment in the area upon graduation.”
In fact, the majority of RCSP cohorts see themselves as lifetime residents of Reading. The program itself requires the students to consider giving back to the community that has so invested in their education.
“They are required to sign a compact,” said Worrall, “which lays out an informal commitment to give back after they graduate, just as the donors and community mentors have invested in them.”
Already, graduates of the Reading Scholars program are working in such places as Reading Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Berks Community Health Center, C. H. Briggs, UGI, Pepsi and others.
Worrall said Alvernia considers its ties to the local community a vital part of the university’s mission, and places cohorts and all students in real-world learning opportunities as often as possible.
He said that despite the challenges the city of Reading faces, including a high poverty rate, the Reading community has a lot to offer new graduates.
The scholars themselves often reiterate that Reading’s reputation as a depressed, undesirable place to live is not well deserved.
For Rosario, who is looking forward to a career in finance, and Torres, who dreams of being a hospital administrator, Reading is the perfect place to launch their careers.
“It is a small enough city that I can know a person who knows a person: ’Hey I went to Alvernia. Oh, I went to Alvernia, too,’” Torres said. “It gives us opportunities to make that connection to land that good-paying job.”
“There’s too much focus on the challenges of the city,” added Rosario. “Let’s focus on the successes.”