Most of Manhattan College knows Marisa Passafiume as the assistant vice president for academic success. But for 30 Bronx high schoolers, she is the mentor who reminds them that college is a tangible reality.
Passafiume runs the Summer Literacy Institute (SLI), a week long college immersion program that takes place on MC’s campus.
“The idea is to close the college achievement gap among underrepresented students in this community, here at home,” Passafiume said.
SLI allows 30 rising high school seniors to spend one week on MC’s campus, take college courses and write a college application essay.
Five years ago, a former MC professor asked Passafiume to co-direct SLI with the help of a grant from the Teagle Foundation.
The grant helped pay for these students’ expenses such as excursions into the city, food, housing, books and stipends for both professors and mentors who helped with the program.
“He sent me the information and I was in love with it,” she said.
Passafiume worked with the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center (KHCC) to help recruit 30 students to apply for SLI. During the academic year, KHCC helped keep the students on the right track leading up to the program.
Then the grant ended. The Teagle Foundation didn’t have another funding cycle for SLI.
Passafiume knew that SLI was working and she did not want it to end. She went straight to MC’s administration and asked for help.
Passafiume said, “This is Lasallian. This is what Manhattan College is really about. It’s a completely selfless program just to get kids in the community thinking about college and actually seeing that they can do this.”
The administration agreed to support SLI for a few years or until a source of external funding was found.
“It’s all volunteering. The college agreed to fund us for a few years because we don’t want to lose momentum,” Passafiume said.
Now that the grant has ended Passafiume is in charge of recruiting students, keeping the students on track with academics and following up with them when they are done with high school.
Passafiume and other professors volunteers their own time in order to do those things.
SLI students can come to MC for free SAT preparation courses taught by MC faculty, three times a week.
“Faculty and staff are volunteering to stay after 5 p.m. when they finish work. The kids take the train from their schools in the winter and our average SAT sessions had 14 students,” Passafiume said.
She said that this is another perk that SLI students appreciate and tell their peers about which creates interest among other high schoolers.
“We have an overwhelming number of applicants. There are 100 applicants for 30 spots and that’s just through word of mouth,” she said.
According to Passafiume, every SLI student is first generation college bound and for many of them English is their second language.
“They all come from lower socioeconomic demographic. One hundred percent of the schools that they attend are free and reduced lunch schools. Kids that really have never thought college was an option. They’ve heard it but never realized,” she said.
Passafiume wants high school students who fit these characteristics to be a part of SLI.
“I don’t want the kids who are going to college anyway because they don’t need this. I want the kid that has one foot in school and one foot out of school and he or she is trying to decide which way they should go,” Passafiume said.
“You give them an experience like this and that kid who is smart but just never really thought about college will think differently,” she said.
David Bollert, Ph.D., teaches a philosophy class for SLI and said that he feels like he can’t let the students in the program down.
“I really want to meet all of their needs to kind of keep alive the hope and to instill in them that this is a concrete reality for them,” Bollert said.
He also said that the SLI students’ are refreshing to teach because they are so honest and excited.
“When you’re there with the students and you see the energy they bring and you hear first hand the stories they have to tell about where they’re coming from and what they’re dreams are, it’s pretty emotionally gripping,” Bollert said.
“They’re absolutely wonderful. They’re bright and feisty,” he said.
Krystal Diaz has been an SLI student mentor for two years and enjoys how excited the students in the program get about college classes.
“They told me that they didn’t know that class could be like this and that they could speak their mind and share their opinion and actually think,” Diaz said.
In addition to taking classes, the students went to a Broadway play, watched a spoken word poet perform, visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and even played a pickup basketball game with some players from MC’s men’s basketball team.
In addition to the students learning, the student mentors said that they also learned a lot.
“Nothing I could have ever taught them could even compare to what they taught me,” said Jessica Risolo, SLI student mentor.
Risolo realized that a group of boys in the SLI program needed a little extra attention in order to realize their potential.
“I said to them, ‘You guys have a lot of natural leadership tendencies. And they said, ‘Wow. Someone notices this in me. I have to show it.”
Risolo said she was sad to say goodbye to the students after the program ended.
“These kids have so much love and knowledge and life experience to give that they really were amazing. I got paid but I would have done it for free,” Risolo said.
At the end of the week, the students read a part of their college essays and Passafiume said that she could tell how much each of them grew in such a short amount of time.
She said that there was one student who was really shy and didn’t know if college was a good environment for him.
According to Passafiume, he wrote his college essay about how he feels like Luke Skywalker and is more confident in who he is now.
Passafiume said that on the second day of SLI, a student asked her if she got paid to organize and run the program.
“I was like, ‘Well no. I work at the college and I get paid for working at the college. But no I don’t get paid for this particular program,” she said.
The same student then asked her why she helps SLI if she doesn’t get paid.
“I didn’t get a chance to answer him. But then at the banquet, they got up and expressed their stories and I answered his question and said, ‘This is why I do this. Cause look at you guys.”
Passafiume doesn’t let the mentorship end after the banquet. She follows up with the students to make sure that the program did what it is designed to do.
She often gets emails from students saying thank you and explaining how much SLI impacted them.
“Without your help I’m sure I would not have gotten into Penn State, much less alone on a full ride scholarship. Thank you for believing in me,” Passafiume said as she read one of those emails.
She said that those emails are concrete evidence that SLI is working.
“The goal is to create a pipeline program. The goal is not to get them to attend Manhattan College, even though every year a handful do,” she said.
“It’s college access. It’s preparing them for college.”
Out of the last SLI group, 28 out of the 30 students went on to college.
According to Passafiume, the two that didn’t go to college are working with her to attend college in the near future or find the path that works best for them.
“It’s alright. You didn’t get there now. There are family and home things going on. But now what are we going to do until spring? Let’s get you a little job, money in your pocket and let’s prepare for you going next year,” she said.
“You don’t realize how a little bit of time and effort on your part can really change someone’s life. It really changes the direction.”