Like many of her Ursinus first-year classmates, Jailene Rodriguez ’21 is settling in.
It takes some time to adapt to new surroundings—to meet new people and professors, to navigate CIE and to figure out the best times to eat in Wismer.
That’s the easy part.
The hard part? “It motivates me,” Rodriguez says, confidently, recounting the road she took to get to college.
A standout student-athlete at Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia, Rodriguez is a first-generation college student unafraid to take risks and meet challenges head-on. She ranked at the top of her graduating class. She was named a Rising Star at the Philadelphia Education Fund’s awards ceremony, the EDDYs, earlier this year. She was admitted to her top two college choices (and, naturally, chose Ursinus).
But the road wasn’t always a smooth one. Rodriguez was born in Philadelphia as one of eight children. She openly talks about her father, who is seven years into a 25-year prison sentence for selling drugs. When her stepfather was arrested and deported to the Dominican Republic, the family moved there to be with him—six people sharing one bed while Rodriguez and two sisters crowded into a baby’s crib. She was 9 years old.
When relatives in the Dominican Republic passed away, she wondered if better healthcare would have given them a better chance. That’s why she’s studying biology and is carving out a path to medical school.
“I had to help my mom support the family,” Rodriguez says. “That forced me to grow up at a young age. I had to motivate my siblings to do well in school so they could become somebody. I never wanted to be a dropout. I wanted to reach for my dreams.”
Not every student gets that opportunity. Ursinus is setting out to change that culture.
Access for All
Earlier this year, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is dedicated to “advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need,” published a report that includes findings from a survey of more than 2,500 high school seniors from low-income backgrounds that had a GPA above 3.8 and SAT or ACT scores in the top 15 percent nationwide.
According to the report, concerns about college costs discourage one in three high-achieving, low-income students from applying to any college. Furthermore, the report says that nearly half of these students never visit their top-choice school, and almost one in four apply with no help from parents, teachers or counselors.
“This is about access for all. It’s not about access for some,” says Dave Tobias, vice president and dean of enrollment management at Ursinus.
“We do a significantly better job than other schools in terms of our ability to attract students from across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he says. “I think a big part of that is the type of community we are. We’re a top 100 national liberal arts college, and quite frankly we’re one of the most welcoming and open communities you can ever be a part of. Those two sentiments—combined—are rare. Students of different walks of life can come here and find people on our campus that come from a similar background.”
A New York Times article published in January notes that there are 38 colleges in the U.S. where more students come from the top one percent of the income scale than the bottom 60 percent, including other Centennial Conference schools.
“Those schools are doing more to perpetuate economic disparity than to help it,” Tobias says. “That gap is the primary challenge of our current socio-educational climate. It also impacts the culture of a campus. You can tangibly feel it.”
By comparison, 21.7 percent of Ursinus students come from the bottom 60 percent of the income scale, Tobias says, and during this past enrollment cycle, Ursinus admitted more high-achieving students, increased selectivity, maintained diversity and increased its class size.
“This is about access for all. It’s not about access for some.”
No one claims that college is cheap, but it’s one of the most important investments a person will make in his or her lifetime, and Ursinus is going all in on returning that investment through programs like the Gateway Scholarship, which automatically awards $30,000 per year to any eligible incoming high-achieving student, and the Ursinus Institute for Student Success, which is focused on retention.
“We’re focusing our efforts on these students because we are literally changing lives,” Tobias says. “We’re living up to our mission to create independent, thoughtful and responsible citizens of the world, and our historic commitment to economic accessibility. Our students’ ability to influence other students on our campus is dramatic. Even beyond that, it prepares everyone on our campus for life in a diverse world.”
When Rodriguez made her decision to come to Ursinus, she wasn’t alone. Three other students from Olney Charter joined her in the Ursinus Class of 2021: Valentino Alfonce, Damian Vicencio and Keyon Williamson.
It’s not uncommon for four of the highest achieving students from the same high school to also consider attending the same college. But for all four to commit to the same place? An added bonus that’s easing the transition.
“It was very exciting to find out that we were all accepted,” Rodriguez says.
They would encourage each other throughout the college search process, and regularly compare notes and remind each other of deadlines. Rodriguez says she was a frequent visitor to Olney Charter’s College Access Center and her college search process wouldn’t have been complete without the Philadelphia Education Fund, which helps students build paths to college and career success, and the coordinator of its college access program, Madeline Birkner.
“That was all a major help though the entire college process, including FAFSA. I didn’t know anything about it. But I was able to apply to scholarships and apply to the schools I wanted because of it,” she says.
Deciding on Ursinus was a no-brainer for each of the four Olney classmates.
“I didn’t want to just be another name on a list,” Vicencio says.
“The professors here, they know you and they really want to get to know you,” Williamson adds. “They want you to succeed. I want to study abroad and get as much experience as I can. I have an opportunity to do that here.”
Students who come to Ursinus don’t want to be lost in a sea of other students. They want to stand out in a crowd. Ursinus prides itself on small class sizes and individualized attention, and students thrive in that environment.
“You have to choose a college that’s the right fit for you, where you can be yourself,” Rodriguez says. “I never heard of Ursinus before I went on a campus tour, but after I visited, I realized where I wanted to be.”
Being admitted to Ursinus, she says, “It made me proud. I want to make my parents proud. Neither of my parents graduated from high school or went to college. I wanted to break the cycle. I wanted to be different.”
Fulfilling a Mission
“It’s always exciting for me to meet prospective students who are intellectually curious, thoughtful and ambitious,” Tobias says.
“Jailene and her classmates are just a few examples, and there are many students in each class just like them.”
“They are students who draw you in with their stories, and they are often wise beyond their years. Those are the students who thrive on our campus, regardless of their background,” he says.
Tobias says the Ursinus admission team is being much more intentional than it has in the past in terms of partnerships and working with specific schools and communities like Olney Charter. Ultimately, it’s about providing opportunities to students and families on a much wider scale and breaking down economic barriers for many high-achieving students who once thought college was out of reach.
“We’re doing everything we can to be accessible to all,” Tobias says.