"My name is Rick Cruz and I'm executive director of EMERGE Fellowship, an organization that works with students from underserved communities and helps guide them toward acceptance at top-tier and Ivy League colleges and universities."
Cruz went to high school in Mexico and graduated from Yale in 2007. From there, he joined Teach for America and as a 5th grade teacher at Moreno Elementary here in Houston, saw high-performing, low-income students headed toward high school who had no idea they could attend some of the best universities around.
"We realize that if our goal is to help kids get into these very selective schools and change the reality that they face today, we need to start working with them sooner rather than later and no later than 9th grade. In fact, we eventually want to start working with kids in the middle school level."
Cruz started EMERGE Fellowship in 2010 as a pilot project at Chavez High School. It began with 14 local high school students. That number is now closer to 60 students who meet once every two weeks after school for three-hour sessions. They're mentored by volunteers who lead them through the tedious process of applying and qualifying to go to elite colleges and universities. Cruz says it isn't easy to get into EMERGE.
"Students have to submit a letter of recommendation, two essays, their transcripts, their standardized test scores. We then invite some of those students to go through an in-person interview, and then they're finally selected to be part of the program."
The program is completely free, but students and their parents have to sign a contract committing themselves to four years of hard work. The first group of EMERGE students is headed off to college in about a month, one to Dartmouth, two to Tufts,
one to Oberlin and one to Harvard.
"Reminding them that there's something big out there that's waiting for them and that it's possible, and they have people who have gone to these schools supporting them and believe in them and are guiding them through that process. I think that definitely instills in kids the sense of possibility, and when they have that sense of possibility, they work towards it."
Enrique Ramirez graduated from Dickenson High School in May and is headed to Harvard next month.
"I didn't know that I could go to college for free. I'm going to Harvard on a full-ride. My term bill came in a couple of days ago and it was zero. I have to pay nothing. I don't think students know that. I didn't know that."
EMERGE works with about 50 colleges and universities that are both full need and need blind, which gives low income, high performing students a better chance of getting a top-tier education, regardless of their ability to pay for it. The school-based program has now expanded to Furr and Sharpstown High schools as well. Students don't have to go to those schools to be a part of the program.