The nonprofit has helped dozens of students from the Philadelphia region get accepted to top schools, now TeenSHARP is branching out in a partnership with the state of Delaware to reach hundreds more children.
As a 4.0 student starting her senior year at Howard High School of Technology this past September, Alejandra Villamares was accustomed to only praise from teachers and classmates.
The child of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, Villamares aspired to become an engineer.
But TeenSHARP, an education advocacy program that helps high-achieving, low-income students of color prepare for and gain acceptance to elite colleges, told her the harsh truth.
“They told me no, I was not ready, not ready at all. Not competitive for top institutions,” Villamares said. “That really shocked me. At that point it was panic mode 100.”
Tatiana Poladko, TeenSHARP’s founder and executive director, said Villamares had the desire to succeed, but had not taken the high-level classes or demonstrated the leadership to make her attractive enough to top schools.
“We saw this child who was absolutely driven but didn’t know what direction to drive,” Poladko said.
Villamares wasted no time finding her course.
Taking TeenSHARP’s counsel, she doubled down on academics, taking extra online courses in languages, calculus, English and sociology, including ones at the University of Delaware and Wilmington University.
Poladko and her staff were wowed by the youngster’s dash into high gear.
“Over the course of about 14 months this child was running at 400 miles an hour,” Poladko said.
Villamares dove into leadership activities. She addressed a conference in Washington about standardized testing. She started a program at Howard for classmates like herself.
“I was frustrated with the education system,” she said. “I was mad because they didn’t allow me to thrive the way I should have.”
As the daughter of immigrants whose father is back in Mexico and whose mother waits tables at a Mexican restaurant in the Newark area, Villamares said she was accustomed to passively accepting whatever was offered by her vo-tech school.
“I believed I didn’t have the power to say anything,” she said. “But I became an education advocate.”
Villamares has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. DACA is an American immigration policy started in 2012 under President Obama that lets some unauthorized immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.
Setting her sights high and succeeding
Villamares set her sights on Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, considered one of America’s finest liberal arts colleges. Wesleyan accepts less than one in five applicants.
While Wesleyan might have been out of her league before she began with TeenSHARP, the agency thrives on pairing its students with such schools. The nonprofit has helped dozens of students from Delaware and New Jersey get accepted to other premier institutions such as Vassar, Georgetown, Swarthmore and Penn.
Villamares learned her fate in February, alone at home while her mom was at work.
I opened the letter and it said like, congratulations. I was like screaming by myself,” Villamares recalled as tears flowed down her face.
“I called my mom and she started crying … It was a really exciting moment. She couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it either.”
As she prepares to start at Wesleyan this fall with a full scholarship worth more than $50,000 a year, Villamares is taking her message of empowerment and intense preparation to students in similar situations as herself.
She’s doing it with TeenSHARP, which has partnered with the state to start the Delaware Goes to College Academy.
Poladko has hired Villamares and other TeenSHARP alumni to train. inspire, cajole and push low-income students with a 3.0 grade point average take their future into their own hands.
Poladko said her agency hopes to assist 300 students of all races this summer at workshops in all three Delaware counties, followed by 24-7 online support with alumni who will serve as mentors.
“Students are expected to attend a summer boot camp in August and move into a virtual class where they are going to be receiving just-in-time support and high-quality advising as they go through the college application process,” Poladko said.
Students are not getting enough hands-on advice and direction from their schools, she said.
“The school counselors in Delaware are overwhelmed,” she said. “On average there is one school counselor for 440 kids. They really have a hard time guiding you in the deep ways” that students need.
Poladko is using successes like Villamaras to show students not only that they can overcome the odds to get into top schools, but how to take the affirmative steps to make it happen. That includes strategies to get crucial financial aid.
“Alejandra has been unleashed,” Poladko said. “Now she’s so passionate about helping other not to be in the same situation.”
At Howard, Villamares studied heating and air conditioning. Now she aspires to make documentary films about unauthorized immigrants like herself. But for the rest of this summer, she wants to share TeenSHARP’s message and guidance with more students.
“You drive your own education,” she said. “And take charge and be responsible for yourself.”