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There were a lot of obstacles standing between brothers Jacob and Josiah Hannah and the bachelor's degrees they'll each receive during next weekend's Commencement at Bucknell University.
While both Hannah brothers earned G.E.D.s, they were homeschooled, which made demonstrating what they'd learned difficult when applying to college, and much of the documentation they had was lost when a forest fire destroyed their family farmhouse. With six other siblings to feed, their parents didn't have the means to help out with tuition. And the rural community in southern West Virginia where they were raised — population 87 — is a place where higher education isn't valued as highly as a traditional career in coal mining, logging or other forms of "honest" labor.
"We never saw college as something that was too good for us necessarily, because our parents raised us to believe that we could do anything we set our minds to," said Josiah. But still, "it would've been laughable to hear that we'd end up at Bucknell University, a very academically prestigious institution. We never would have considered ourselves as heading in that direction."
What convinced the Hannah brothers to consider a place like Bucknell — in spite of the roadblocks standing in their way — is a program that has offered students the means to a four-year degree for more than a decade.
Each year, the Bucknell Community College Scholars Program (BCCSP) invites around 30 outstanding students from five partner community colleges (including Garrett College in Western Maryland, where the Hannahs graduated) to attend a six-week summer session at Bucknell. The students live on campus, take two classes and attend workshops where they build skills they'll need to thrive at a four-year residential university. After completing their associate's degrees in community college, the students become eligible to apply to transfer to Bucknell, where each year between 15 and 20 enroll and receive full scholarships to complete a bachelor's in two years.
Founded in 2006 with a four-year grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Bucknell now fully funds the program. To-date, approximately 290 students have participated and more than 175 have graduated from Bucknell. On May 21, they will be joined by new cohort of 19 BCCSP students who will take part in Commencement — the 10th class to graduate from the program.
"These students bring to campus a set of experiences and life circumstances that often stand in stark contrast to many traditional Bucknellians," said Robert Midkiff, Bucknell's associate provost, registrar, dean of graduate studies and summer session and a longtime adviser for BCCSP students. "This program changes campus, but more importantly, it changes the lives of these students and their families."
The names of many students whose lives were changed through BCCSP come easily to Midkiff, a first-generation college graduate who happens to have grown up in rural West Virginia himself. They include Dave Lackford '12, an ex-Marine with four kids who was working as a barber before he finished his degree in psychology and sociology, went to law school and was hired by a Kentucky district attorney's office; Melissa Hopkins '16, a former bartender who majored in philosophy and psychology and is now studying for her master's at Cambridge; and Tyler McClenithan '13, an education major who went on to earn a master's in college student development and now works in admissions for the University of Maryland, where he focuses on recruiting and retaining high-achieving, low-income community college students. Others have gone on to medical school and careers in higher education, or have started their own businesses. In March, just a few months after graduating from Bucknell, Phillip Martin '16 received a prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
"These are folks whose dreams were really big, but who often didn't have the resources," Midkiff said. "This program gave them the resources."
Those resources include ongoing mentorship from BCCSP staff, who confer with summer program students as they progress in their final year of community college and are available to help once they arrive at Bucknell, as well as ties to fellow community college scholars that the program aims to cultivate.
"When you're in the six-week program, you realize everyone wants everyone else to succeed," said Summer Grenyion-Smith '17, an art major who came to Bucknell from Montgomery County Community College near Philadelphia. "We're all helping each other. We're all up until 2 a.m. encouraging one another. We all become like a family in a sort of way. The transition from community college to Bucknell — yeah, it was a bit rough, but we had each other."
That support is key for students who face obstacles many of their classmates don't. Some, like Tom Conroy '17, a Gulf War veteran who was sidelined from his career at a railroad company by a knee injury, have recently returned to education after decades away from school.
"BCCSP is a game changer — it represents a second chance at life that is nothing short of miraculous," said Conroy, who enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) at age 49. "It can turn everything around, no matter what your age. As a student, I am not ashamed to say that I don't take anything for granted. Every test, every paper is going to challenge me in some way or another. We BCCSPers accept the challenge because we love to learn, and we want to succeed. The academic rigor at Bucknell demands that I work very hard for good grades here. I do, because I don't want to let down the people at CCP and Bucknell who have had faith in me."
Others face different challenges. Karen Peralta '17 moved to the United States with her family shortly after graduating high school in her native Dominican Republic, and was still learning English alongside her studies at Lehigh Carbon Community College near Allentown, Pa., when she enrolled in the summer program.
"The summer program allowed me to get that confidence in myself to know that I could do more than just an associate's," Peralta said. "It was not only having resources, but also having people that will receive you, embrace everything that you are, and help you succeed at anything that you set your mind to. It's rewarding to know that these people want me here. They believe in me and they're pushing me to see beyond what I see in myself."
The program not only gave Peralta confidence — it also opened her eyes to a whole new field of interest. After taking a summer course taught by Professor Mark Haussmann, biology, she decided to change her major to biology, and recently accepted an offer to work as a technician in the human genetics department of the University of Utah. She also has long-term plans to get her Ph.D. in microbiology or parasitology.
Many of the other graduating community college scholars have similarly lofty goals. Grenyion-Smith wants to start her own company centered around her artwork. Conroy, a psychology major, wants to help tackle the suicide epidemic among veterans as a social worker and is applying to get a master's in social work — though he adds that he was "bit by the teaching bug" while serving as a teaching assistant during last year's BCCSP summer program and has also applied to Teach for America.
The Hannah brothers will be returning home to West Virginia, where each plans to put his degree in managing for sustainability to work in different ways to serve their community. Josiah plans to work for nonprofit group home on a 380-acre horse farm in Maryland that serves children placed in foster homes, to pursue a master's degree, and to hopefully replicate the farm's success by starting a similar nonprofit in his native state. Jacob intends to start a nonprofit of his own to help those affected by joblessness, drug addiction and poor health.
"Our reason for going to college is that we knew that we wanted to help somehow," said Jacob, "to share the joy that we had naturally. By going to community college and then coming here, we got a better idea of how to use a business structure to help people back home."
Josiah agreed. "One thing that we've learned about sustainable community development is that it takes someone from an area who knows, and who's embedded, to really take ownership of any movement or operation to change an area," he said. "For it to take hold, the community has to change from the inside out."
But before graduating and embarking on these new ventures, the BCCSP cohort will gather one last time. On May 20, the day before Commencement, Bucknell will host its annual Community College Scholars Celebration at 4 p.m. in Trout Auditorium inside the Vaughan Literature Building. The event celebrates the accomplishments of the graduating scholars and provides an open mic for scholars and their guests to talk about their experience over the last two years.
"It's a pretty intense and moving ceremony," said Midkiff.
Read more about the Community College Scholars Program in Bucknell Magazine.