Chance of a Lifetime

GW’s Early College Program enables some of D.C.’s best and brightest high school students to get a tuition-free jump start on college.

November 23, 2009

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By Rachel Muir

Her mother cleans houses; her father is out of work. “My parents can’t afford to pay for college,” says 16-year-old Gabriela Cruz, now one of GW’s youngest degree-seeking candidates. Ms. Cruz, a straight-A student who already knows she wants to be a pediatrician, is one of a select group of School Without Walls juniors who are spending their last two years of high school in classes at GW jointly earning an associate’s degree and high school diploma.

Ms. Cruz, who lives in D.C.’s Pentworth neighborhood in Northeast, says GW’s new Early College Program is her chance. She is taking four classes at GW this semester: calculus, Spanish, criminal justice and a course on gender, bodies and health. Ms. Cruz plans to continue at GW for her bachelor’s and medical degrees, earning as many scholarship dollars as she can along the way.

It’s a path already charted by her older brother, who went to college at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., entirely on scholarship and is now an entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution. He helps her parents make ends meet. “We’re a family,” she says.

Ms. Cruz’ classmate Fabien Navidi-Kasmai hasn’t honed his career ambitions yet. He is drawn to music and math, and plays guitar in a band. His mother is French; his father is Iranian and fled Tehran after the 1979 revolution. (“Watching last summer’s election in Iran and its aftermath was incredible for my father,” Mr. Navidi-Kasmai says.) His parents met in Paris, then came to the United States.

Mr. Navidi-Kasmai, who is also 16, lives in D.C.’s Tenleytown neighborhood with his parents and younger brother. He calls the Early College Program “an amazing opportunity” and says he knew he wanted to apply the minute he learned about it. Like Ms. Cruz, he is taking four classes this semester and highlights a dean’s seminar called “Let’s Eat” with Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit as especially fascinating.

Along with a dozen of their classmates from School Without Walls—a D.C. public high school located on G Street in Foggy Bottom—Ms. Cruz and Mr. Navidi-Kasmai are participating in the inaugural year of GW’s Early College Program.

Selected through a rigorous application process, the 14 are considered full-time GW students, and each take four to five classes per semester. Tuition and fees are waived. After completion of the program, students will earn an Associate of Arts degree from GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

The program is led by Sheila Mills Harris, former School Without Walls principal. The goal is “to seamlessly integrate the high school and college experiences,” says Dr. Harris, who continues to meet with the Early College Program students as a group in a weekly seminar. “Not only does entering college as a junior mean an incredible cost savings, but the program affords these students the opportunity to develop the confidence and inner resources necessary to achieve in higher education.”

Along with Dr. Harris, the Early College Program’s development team includes GW Deputy General Counsel Charles Barber; Paul Duff, associate dean for GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences; Alex Donahue, director of college readiness at D.C. Public Schools; and Richard Trogisch, principal of School Without Walls.

The program is the latest initiative in a long-term partnership between GW and School Without Walls. Since 1980, the two have collaborated and shared academic space and resources, earlier this year completing a historic restoration of the high school that transformed the 118-year-old structure into a 68,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art learning environment.

“We want to be dream-makers for students in D.C. public schools and hope this program will serve as a model for other collaborative efforts between schools and universities in Washington, D.C., as well as in other parts of the nation,” says Dr. Harris.