uvm a - z directory search





UVM Notebook


Alumni Voice

Campaign Update

Alumni Connection

Class Notes

Extra Credit



Alumni news &






The Bronx to Burlington
Building diversity has never been easy at UVM, but a thriving partnership
with a New York City high school has spurred major progress.
by Rachel Morton


photography by Shayne Lynn '93

They have been observed, remarked upon, worried about, interviewed, photographed, held up as role models, extolled, and finally, on May 22, they were celebrated as University of Vermont graduates, Class of 2005. Like every other student at UVM, they came to the University to get an education, and they probably just wanted to be ordinary college students. But unlike the rest of the student body, this circle of young people from the Bronx often had a very public platform for their educational journey.

It all began four years ago, when they arrived at UVM as ambassadors of a kind from New York City's most multiethnic and least affluent borough. The Urban Partnership Program, which was designed to expand the options for students at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx and to increase the diversity of the student body at UVM, had gotten off to a strong start, enrolling 13 students in 2001.

From the start, there were cultural differences, race differences, class differences, and even some notable weather differences, the students say. Bronx, New York, is about as different from Burlington, Vermont, as a place could be. Nearly 75 percent of the more than one million people residing in the Bronx are African-American or Hispanic. Burlington, by contrast, is 92.8 percent white, and with a population of 38,899 Vermont's largest city isn't quite the Big Apple.

But to the Columbus students who first arrived with their families to see the campus in 2001, UVM, in spite of its extreme difference, offered a wonderful opportunity for a first-rate education. It also offered them a new perspective on themselves and the world.

Their presence on campus turned out to offer the exact same thing to the University.

Director of Admissions Don Honeman, in talking about the notable successes of the Urban Partnership Program, points to the numbers: In the fall of 2000, the minority undergraduate population of UVM stood at about 4.6 percent. Today it's up to 6.6 percent. Sixty-two Columbus graduates were enrolled at UVM during the 2004-2005 academic year, and 12 more are set to join UVM's Class of 2009 in the fall. What's more, the Columbus students are far from being the sole difference - 179 ALANA students will enroll in August, an 11 percent jump from last year's number. “We're on a good trajectory,” Honeman says. But the real measure of success is in the extraordinary kids, he notes, and the incredible gifts they bring to the campus.

A Sense of Potential
When Leniece Flowers first visited campus, as a senior from Christopher Columbus High School, she liked what she saw. “I came here and fell in love,” she says. “The mountains, the environment.”

Her mother, Lynnette Flowers, visited and liked the feeling of the place, too. “It wasn't New York and I was grateful for that. There was a slower pace, a community feeling. I was like, 'Great!' Plus Leniece has always been resourceful. I told her, 'Hold your head up. People will recognize you. You can't speak for the race.'”

Her father, Kelvin Flowers, concurred: “I felt she'd be OK in the all-white environment,” he says. “She knows who she is, she can adapt.” Flowers, who didn't go to college, is proud of his daughter's many accomplishments. “The sky's the limit for her. When you have an education, you can write your own ticket. That's what you want for your child. You live for that.”

That's what all parents want for their children. Black or white, urban or rural, Vermonter or New Yorker. And it is what Gerald Garfin, principal of Christopher Columbus High School, wanted for all his students: to enlarge their ambitions, academically and geographically. To give them the best possible education and a sense of their own potential.

When Garfin met Honeman at a meeting of the Foundation for Excellent Schools in 2000, the two men immediately found common ground. It was Honeman's desire to help make UVM a more diverse campus. Though Vermont, and UVM, is predominantly white, its students will graduate into a world that is multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural.

“A diverse student community at UVM provides Vermont students with the opportunity to interact with, and learn from students whose backgrounds better reflect the world that our students will engage as graduates,” says Honeman.

UVM was already recruiting in metropolitan areas, but with a northern location and a predominantly white student body, its appeal was limited. “We'd engage them halfway through their senior years and for them Vermont seemed halfway to the North Pole,” he says. “This is too late to make this kind of decision. But if we spent four years preparing students to consider what choices they might have . . .”

Honeman doesn't have to finish the sentence, not today, and not for Garfin five years ago. They were in perfect agreement. “He wanted access to an inner city school,” says Garfin. “We wanted access to a prestigious college.”

The type of program that both Honeman and Garfin were envisioning would begin as early as ninth grade for students at Christopher Columbus. In the early years, the focus wouldn't be on UVM in particular, but on applying to college in general. “Especially in the freshman and sophomore years,” says Honeman, “We're trying to be as marketing neutral as possible. UVM is just used as an example, not the focus.”

Deborah Gale, a UVM admissions officer, explains that during a recent trip to meet with ninth-graders at Christopher Columbus, “We had them fill out a Common App [universal college application] and write an essay. Then we critiqued it and showed them samples of good essays. Last year, all the kids wrote me notes afterwards. I wrote personal notes back to each of them.” This kind of repeated, personal interaction creates relationships that can flower over time.

The program received an enormous boost when Alex Wilcox '94, an alumnus who was director of business development at JetBlue Airways, heard about the emerging program from Honeman. Impressed, he persuaded CEO David Neeleman and his colleagues at JetBlue to provide corporate sponsorship in the form of 200 annual free tickets between Burlington and the Bronx for use by UVM staff and faculty as well as high school students and their families. With the plane tickets, the path between UVM and Christopher Columbus was laid down in air miles. Young urban kids began to see that Vermont was not a foreign country, but a very appealing place, a mere 70 minutes from JFK to BTV.

Donald Comras, college advisor for Christopher Columbus at the time, feels the generosity of JetBlue was key to the program's early success. The airline has continued its commitment of tickets and furthered it with UVM scholarship support. “Those free tickets allowed our staff, our students, and their families to see what the campus was like, what Burlington was like,” he says. “One parent started crying when she came to Burlington. She was so moved that her child would be allowed this opportunity. For many of these families, this is the first generation to go to college.”

By the spring of 2001, 28 Christopher Columbus students had applied to UVM, 22 were accepted and 13 enrolled. The partnership was up and rolling or, in the words of Jerry Garfin - “During the first year, this thing flew off the handle.”

In the Spotlight
It wasn't always easy. The first group of Columbus students received a lot of attention, not all of it welcome, and wrong assumptions were sometimes made.

“People assumed I wasn't qualified,” says Leniece Flowers. “Or that I got a free ride.” This still rankles, even now, years later. “I got here on my own merits. I'm not a charity case.” She, like many of the partnership students, was always college-bound, did well in high school, was accepted at many, if not all, of the colleges to which she applied. (Of the original 13 students who enrolled at UVM, four graduated in May and five more are on track to graduate.)

Miguel Garcia, another in the pioneering first class, found the culture of Burlington to be something of a shock. A city boy accustomed to a “24-hour lifestyle,” from his perspective the town closed up at dark, and he admits that the cold affected him.

“UVM made me appreciate spring,” he laughs. “And New York City!” Garcia, still looking hip in spite of the cold weather, wears two earrings in his left ear, a nose stud, and a big black overcoat billowing over his red sweatshirt and oversized jeans. Gray and red sneakers complete the outfit. Garcia is committed to getting his diploma and continuing his education, but last year he needed to take a break and return home. He says he missed the bustle of urban life, missed the culture and the food, missed the clubs and the nightlife.
An “out” gay man since his sophomore year in high school, Garcia is very active in the gay student group and has struggled at times with the visibility and the assumptions that being in the first partnership group has engendered, both within the white and minority campus populations.

“I want to be known as Miguel, as an individual, not as Miguel from Christopher Columbus,” he says. “Just cause we're people of color doesn't mean we all have to stick together. A lot of my friends are from Christopher Columbus, but there are other kids too. I hang out with people who are gay, people of color, white. . . It's mixed. People are people.”

Raphael Okutoro feels the same way. Born in Liberia, Okutoro applied to, and was accepted at, 11 other colleges, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but a visit to UVM piqued his interest. Though his first impression of the campus was - “kind of cold and very white” - he quickly fit in. “I'm a very outgoing person. I try not to let things bother me.” He joined Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where he was the only black student. “I didn't feel different. We're all treated the same. With respect.”

Okutoro, an environmental sciences major, has taken full advantage of his years at UVM. He developed an interest in filmmaking, and has made several films. He has served as orientation leader, resident assistant, and peer advisor. He has done an internship with the admissions office and served on a student advisory board - the list goes on and Okutoro's admirers range far and wide.

Comras, his former college advisor at Columbus, says with a laugh, “Raphael could become director of admissions tomorrow.”

Maybe someday, but not tomorrow. After graduation, Okutoro planned to head for Hollywood. There, the former aeronautical engineering student turned environmental engineer, turned filmmaker, wants to make it in the movies.

Delivering on the Promise
The ALANA Student Center, under the leadership of director Beverly Colston, has been a great support to many of the Columbus students as they've dealt with the complexities inherent in being part of a minority community. The unassuming one-story building on Redstone Campus has been a home away from home and several of the students say that Colston has become as close as family during their years at UVM.

This kind of support was critical during times of stress, when the students were seeing that along with great educational opportunities, UVM offered the chance for personal growth and for development of character - but that some of these opportunities came from confronting difficult situations and overcoming adversity.
In 2001, the freshman year of that first class from the Bronx, an incident occurred that deeply disturbed the minority community. A white student had hung a Confederate flag in his dormitory window, and though the administration asked him to remove the flag, he refused. English Professor Emily Bernard remembers it well. It was a time for the adults to show leadership, she says, to be role models, but day after day, the flag hung there with all its racist connotations, the object of controversy and discord.

“So you know what Leniece did?” Bernard asks. “She went to the kid's room. She talked to him. Leniece was very gentle. Very grave. I loved what it demonstrated about her. She'll always seek out her own truth. She recognized the humanity of this kid. She looked him in the eye, reasonable person to reasonable person. She did the gracious thing. She was the mature grown-up. And she was a freshman! I was so impressed.”

Patty Corcoran G'88, assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been another key advocate and friend for the Columbus students. A counselor by training, Corcoran has worked on campus for 24 years and has an unshakable devotion to the University and the urban partnership.

“I have a special place in my heart for this program,” she says. “It's easy to be a cheerleader for a program that gives us these phenomenal students. They're really engaged, willing to be leaders on campus. They are a delight to work with. It's very rewarding for all of us, professionally and personally.”

The Urban Partnership Program also receives kudos outside the University. In the fall of 2003, it was awarded Outstanding High School-College Partnership Award from the New England Board of Higher Education. It's garnered wide media attention, including front page coverage in The New York Times. Beyond Columbus, that level of visibility has given UVM the sort of traction it has never had with student recruitment throughout New York City and other urban areas. “We've made amazing inroads,” says Gale of UVM's Admissions Office.

But perhaps no one can appreciate the program as much as those on campus, such as Corcoran, who grappled with the shantytowns on the University Green, the occupation of the President's Office in April 1991, and other moments in UVM's long struggle to build diversity.

“This is one of the things I am most proud of. Having been here during the sit-ins and student protests and ending up here,” she opens her arms to indicate the great students the partnership has brought the campus. “I feel like this institution is evolving in terms of diversity. We are finally delivering on the promise.”

The Only Way
And now it's the Columbus/UVM grads time to deliver on their own promise. The University of Vermont has suited Leniece Flowers in many ways, and she has embraced education as an avenue to a better life, not just for herself, but also for others less fortunate than herself. “I want to lift as I climb,” she says. “I think about my high school experience and how things should have been different. Only a small proportion of kids got to college. There should have been more.” She remembers that there were often military recruiters on her high school campus, but rarely did college reps come. “That tells you something about priorities.”

Bernard, who has gotten to know Flowers well over the past four years, isn't surprised by her passion for education and equality. “She has a huge sense of service,” says Bernard. “She's always aware of her community and will always remember the people left behind. That's so rare in the world now. For all her gifts, it's not easy to be a young black woman.”

Even on the day before graduation, Flowers doesn't rest on her considerable laurels. She has been patiently responding to requests for interviews and photographs (that day the local newspaper ran her photograph on the front page) and is looking forward to joining “Teach for America,” where she'll work this summer before she begins graduate school. When asked about a vacation, Flowers says she doesn't anticipate taking any breaks until she gets her doctorate. Her career goal is to reform the New York City public school system. That's going to take some preparation.

Bernard, for one, has confidence that Flowers will do whatever she sets her mind to. “I have no doubt she'll have a public stage,” she says. “She has great ideas about education - a sense of herself and her role within the system. She wants to and can impact things on a national level. My prediction: She'll be Secretary of Education in 30 years.”

“Education is power,” Flowers says. “It's the only way for me. The only way I won't be denied opportunities.”