Helping Students Succeed

Five years ago, I became chair of the Civic Council’s Scholarship for Community Service Committee. The role offered me the special opportunity to work again with our public-school students, stepping away from my current career as a psychologist and returning to my first 25 years as a school guidance counselor.

This committee grants a $1,000 financial award to one graduate of each of the three secondary schools housed in the John Jay High School building who were accepted to college, and who could demonstrate community service while in high school. The scholarships are awarded every June at the Civic Council’s year-end meeting, and school staff, parents, and family are invited to share in this proud event.

Committee members have been totally welcomed and comfortably accepted by all the school staff and students. It feels great to be forging a relationship between our neighborhood and our local high school, which has existed here for decades but still feels like an unknown entity in Park Slope.

Perhaps more meaningfully, we have come to know what kind of students are coming to our high school. We are impressed with our scholarship applicants’ backgrounds, life stories, and unbelievable motivation to succeed, not to mention their desire to volunteer and help others.

We’ve also learned about these students’ support networks, and as a result have discovered things that don’t really appear on their applications. Their stories are often dramatic.

Many of these students are still struggling to get their immigration status in order. They are born in countries in South and Central America, West Indies, or Africa, and are brought or sent here by parents whose sacrifices for their children are inspiring and at times heart-aching. Some of our applicants come to join their parents after many years apart; others are sent here to live with relatives, and do not see their parents for decades. The impressive students that we meet have overcome these obstacles, honoring the tradition of sacrificing a comfortable lifestyle in the present for a stronger well-being for themselves and their families in the future.

For me, these family stories are a reminder of my grandparents who came over with very little on the boat from Russia. This historical connection helps me understand my emotional reaction every time I see the Statue of Liberty.

This year, the Civic Council is giving even greater attention to the scholarship program. Our goal is to really make an impact on the financial needs faced by our winners, especially since many of these outstanding students don’t legally qualify for college aid. We are starting a fundraising program to increase the scholarship awards; we are also looking to keep a connection with our awardees as they progress through college, inviting them back to our June meetings to share tales of their higher-educational journeys. We are also planning ways to share some of these stories so our neighbors will know who these students are.

It’s been a pleasure and honor for our committee to be working with these youngsters, and wonderfully rewarding to watch our Civic Council dedicate itself to ensuring these scholarships remain one of our main missions.

E-mail me at if you’d like to learn more about this program.

— Joan Emerson chairs the Scholarship Committee.

Photo: David Herman

 from the Fall 2011 Civic News