Empower Players

Bea Maldonado ’15 first stepped onto the Scripps College campus—on any college campus for that matter—in ninth grade.

A colorful abstract graphicFrom South Central Los Angeles, she came as a Scripps College Academy (SCA) Scholar, selected from a pool of ambitious applicants who hungered for a college education but had some challenges to surmount to get there. Arriving to participate in SCA’s rigorous Summer Residential Program, Maldonado, in essence, remained at Scripps until she graduated from the College in 2015. Now a third-year PhD student at the University of Illinois, she is still part of an expanding, close-knit network of women whose bravery, passion, intellect, and potential were given space and encouragement to grow in the Scripps College Academy.


“Scripps College Academy gave me confidence in my ambition; confidence that I was allowed to dream. Before, I thought my dreams were too big—when you’re from a certain background, you’re told that certain things are plausible and certain things aren’t. SCA showed me that anything I dream, anything I believe, I can achieve it,” she says. “SCA gave voice to the voice I’ve always had but felt was too loud growing up; it was the first time I knew what women’s empowerment felt like.”


Established in 2002 and recently celebrating 15 years of significant growth and impact, SCA provides college-readiness assistance to high-achieving young women who may lack the resources to prepare for success at top colleges and universities. Through highly intentional on-campus programming and community outreach, including the Summer Residential Program, year-round academic enrichment and college-prep workshops, college-focused presentations in regional middle schools and high schools, and a new program that supports SCA Scholars through their entire college experience, SCA’s intent is to stretch aspiring young women in meaningful ways and equip them with tools for achieving their dreams. SCA’s impact is one of transformation and inspiration, but not only for the participants. Also touched are the lives of the Scripps faculty, staff, and students who invest their time and talent into making it all happen.


“Many of the faculty have said that this was maybe the most important thing we’ve done,” says Scripps Associate Professor of Psychology Judith LeMaster, who has been involved with SCA since its inaugural year. During the summer program, one of LeMaster’s unique and well-loved contributions is a session on happiness, on what it means to have a good life: “It’s intended to be something that’s immediately useful to the Scholars in a concrete way; simple things they can do.”John Peavoy, associate professor emeritus of English, has taught in the summer program for 14 of its 15 sessions and, although retired, he has no intentions of stopping. His love for teaching and the knowledge that he’s making a difference draws him back every year. “And I want to say that I wouldn’t have done this year after year if it wasn’t fun. It’s really fun. Part of that is being on a team with faculty and students working together to keep it going, all heading in the same direction.”


Fundamental to the efforts of SCA is the unwavering belief that any young woman who aspires to attend a four-year college can do so, regardless of background. Approximately 98 percent of SCA Scholars are the first in their families to attend college and aren’t sure where to start or what’s possible. “I didn’t know anything about applying, or where to go, or even what questions to ask,” says Anna-Marie Wood ’13, an alumna of the academy and Scripps College and now an assistant director of admission at Scripps. “That happens with a lot of first-generation students; you don’t even know where to begin, and it’s expensive.” “That’s where we come in,” says Roberto Escobar, SCA director. “We offer them all that knowledge—where you find money, what’s a good school for you based on fit. We dispel myths that certain types of students can only go to a community college, or if you’re undocumented you can’t go to school, or that a private college is out of reach. Not true. We teach them what’s real and what’s not.” And, SCA provides all services, events, programs, meals, transportation—everything—for free.


“So often, says former SCA Assistant Director Edna Becerra, “we worked with young women who had already limited their aspirations to the confines of their cultural expectations, financial limitations, or geographic boundaries. It’s a special thing to witness young women dress themselves in newfound confidence and visualize never-imagined possibilities.” The Summer Residential Program is SCA’s most academically intensive component, into which only 50 high school-age young women are chosen annually from an ever-growing pool of applicants—200 last year—to be SCA Scholars. To run the two-week, immersive experience—for many students, it’s their first time on a college campus or living away from home—the commitment and teamwork of Scripps faculty, staff, and students is essential.


Dedicated to providing a meaningful experience for the scholars, SCA leaders and faculty gather for a full week of brainstorming prior to the high schoolers’ arrival, drawing on each individual’s expertise and interests to design the curriculum. When the girls arrive—excited, hopeful, nervous—the quiet of the summer campus is replaced with light chatter that, over the next 14 days, deepens into serious conversations about their goals and aspirations.
Leaders engage the scholars in small-group discussions on race, equality, gender, power, privilege, and other complex subjects, and help them develop practical academic and life skills such as writing, critical analysis, research, and public speaking. While participants also enjoy field trips, socializing, art projects, and recreational activities, the summer program is intentionally rigorous. Its curriculum provides not only an academic push but also a vivid introduction to the intensity of college-level dialogue about concepts and issues that matter in their lives, in their communities, and in the world. “We know that in this very intense two weeks that some of the students will start fearing they don’t really belong, and they’re not sure they can do it. But we let them know right away—and then again whenever they need to hear it—that they do belong. We know they belong, and we know they can do it,” Peavoy says.
Scripps students who graduate from the academy and then remained involved—this time, as student staff members—provide especially powerful voices of encouragement because they have been there; they have walked in the new scholars’ shoes. Their similar backgrounds and shared experiences engender trust and invite openness. Now they are at a top-tier college, representing to the high schoolers the possibility and potentiality of their own futures. “It’s not about paying someone back. It’s about passing it along, because that way it’s a ripple, it doesn’t just stay in a cluster or a bubble,” Maldonado says. “We’re there to tell the girls, ‘You’re capable of so much more than you can see right now.’”


Beyond playing a key role in the summer program, Scripps students contribute to SCA in many other ways: tutoring, mentoring seniors through the college application process, giving College Club workshops at middle schools, and transporting scholars to SCA’s year-round academic enrichment activities, such as SAT/ACT preparation classes, science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) research opportunities, financial aid workshops, and faculty-led book clubs. While she was a Scripps student, SCA alumna ReAndra Johnson ’17 was involved in all aspects of the academy’s activities. A meaningful college experience for her was being able to facilitate small-group discussions with new SCA Scholars on the very subjects— race, class, and power—that were illuminating for her when she was a high school SCA participant. Johnson refers to that time in her life as “the beginning of my awakening.” A recent Scripps graduate, Johnson intends to continue working in the college-access field in some manner, perhaps through policy work or educational counseling. If it wasn’t for SCA, she says, “I wouldn’t have found something I’m so passionate about or even recognized the need for.” Johnson has definitive thoughts on how educational opportunities should be made available to particular demographic groups. “We have to be intentional about the approaches to education we take, especially making sure marginalized groups have access,” she continued. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, anyone can get an education.’ We have to make sure we’re taking thoughtful, particular steps that focus on women, people of color, and people with disabilities.” For Wood, the SCA Scholars program empowered her to do something no one expected—not even her. At Wood’s Downey, California, high school, it was assumed that if a student was heading to a four-year college, it would be a UC or a Cal State. Indeed, Wood was accepted at UCLA and UC Berkeley, “which would have been totally fine, but SCA gave me the confidence to go against the status quo of my high school.” Now, working in Scripps’ Office of Admission, she looks for applicants who go beyond what’s expected, who refuse to conform to a prefabricated idea about their life’s trajectory.

“It’s not about paying someone back. It’s about passing it along, because that way it’s a ripple, it doesn’t just stay in a cluster or a bubble.”
—Bea Maldonado ’18


“Scripps has always been about the empowerment and advancement of women, and I see SCA as a crucial extension of that,” she says. Wood’s high regard for the academy includes appreciation for what the program meant to her family. “They loved it. They could tell I was so happy to have so much guidance and support,” she says. “I mean, SCA helped my mom and dad fill out the FAFSA for free. Who else was going to do that?” Maldonado expressed similar admiration for the academy’s dedication to families. “They not only want to support students, but they have the humility to extend support to families, which is amazing, because you cannot understand the student if you don’t also understand the family.” And now, putting her “pass it along” philosophy into action, Maldonado is helping her younger brother apply to college. “I’m using everything I learned in SCA. Because of that knowledge, I’m a better role model. He’s a first-gen as well, and I have a responsibility to support him.” While some SCA alumnae like Maldonado, Johnson, and Wood went on to attend Scripps, many participants have gone to other top colleges and universities, including Pomona, Princeton, Dartmouth, USC, and Occidental. Regardless of where they go, SCA’s care and support follows them. Through the academy’s newest component, STRIVE, the scholars receive regular phone calls, care packages, encouragement, resources, and advice from SCA staff for the duration of their college years.


“We call them and ask about their social life, academic life, mental health. We do whatever we can based on what they tell us. Sometimes this is a pep talk; sometimes we do some research to get them materials or information they need,” says Escobar, sharing that 100 percent of SCA Scholars in the class of 2017 matriculated into four-year colleges and universities. At institutions where there are multiple scholars, SCA groups them into teams and appoints a team leader who is responsible for planning get-togethers for support, friendship, and peer-to-peer motivation to keep going, especially when it’s hard. “Now that the program has been around a while, it’s started to build networks of schools in addition to Scripps, so that a scholar can go to USC, for example, and find a friendly and safe mentor. The network is significant,” says Kelly Hewitt King ’08, SCA’s director from 2008 to 2013. Under King’s leadership, SCA received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, considered the nation’s highest honor for after-school arts and humanities programs, particularly those that reach underserved children and youth. The award was presented at the White House by then–First Lady Michelle Obama.


“Scripps took SCA on as a core part of its mission, and this award helped validate that meaningful and long-term investment within the College,” King says. The Scripps College community is one of connection, support, and encouragement to lead lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity. The academy echoes and underscores these guiding principles for its Scholars. They are given the opportunity to have a place within this community as early as age 15, setting them on a path toward being their best selves, leading their best lives, wherever they ultimately land. Soon to graduate, Scripps senior Mercedes Adame ’18, a dedicated SCA student staff member, reflects upon her first moments as an SCA Scholar and offers this sage assurance to prospective Scholars: “As a 10th grader, it’s okay not to know what you’re doing. It’s okay to feel scared and at the same time feel excited. Because of SCA, we’re [like an extended] family, and we’re going to help you figure out what you want to do. We’re there to nurture you and help you accomplish your dreams.”


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