2015 Promising Scholars Awards

Helping young African Americans attain higher education and find their passion is the mission of the Promising Scholars Edward A. Bouchet Scholarship.

Though he grew up just a few short blocks away from Yale University, Jermaine Thomas didn't know anyone who thought about going there. Most of the people he knew didn't have much of an education at all.

"You were so close to a world renowned university, but in the heart of an underserved urban environment. It was two different worlds juxtaposed next to each other," Thomas said.

With the help of a determined mother, supportive teachers, and scholarship opportunities including the Promising Scholars Fund, Thomas was able to attend to Georgetown University. He found his niche in psychology, and is now on the cusp of earning his doctorate and becoming a licensed clinical psychologist. He plans to work with disadvantaged families in Chicago.

"Coming up, there were a lot of discords in my family," Thomas said. "I was the youngest. I was perceptive. I had a knack for understanding people's problems. Growing up my friends would tell me, 'You should be a therapist.'"

L-R_Evenson Andre, Ahsanti Smith, Janelle Cooper, Henry Gedeon and Quian Callender. Photographer: Tom Ficklin. The Promising Scholars Fund awarded $30,000 in college scholarships to 5 African American students this year. In addition to receiving tuition assistance, each scholar receives a medal emblazoned with the image of Edward Bouchet, in whose name scholarships are awarded. Click here or on the image above to view photos from the scholarship ceremony held on June 6, 2015 at ConnCAT.

Helping young African Americans like Thomas attain higher education and find their passion is the mission of the Promising Scholars Fund, which awarded a round of scholarships at a ceremony held at ConnCAT. Whereas most scholarships congratulate winners by letter, the Promising Scholars Fund invites its scholars to personally connect with some of the most successful African Americans in the region – members of the Beta Tau Boulé, a local chapter of the nation's oldest African American Greek letter fraternity.

"Last year after I came here I told my grandma I felt like I was a part history. And she said, 'See, life is about the choices you make,'" said Ashanti Smith. Smith is a '14 graduate of James Hillhouse High School who received her second Promising Scholars scholarship award after making the deans list in her first year at Hampton University in Virginia.

The scholarship program is sponsored by The Beta Tau Boulé, the New Haven chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, a national fraternity of cultural and professional leaders that counts W.E.B Dubois and Martin Luther King as past members. The Beta Tau Boulé created the Promising Scholars Fund in honor of Edward A. Bouchet, a physicist who was the first African American to graduate from Yale. In 1876 he became the first African American in the country to earn a doctorate degree.

"By any measure of evaluation we are meeting our long term goals and this year we have increased our impact by awarding five rather than four scholarships of $6,000 each," said Archon Alvin Johnson, who oversees the scholarship committee.

With its annual award, The Promising Scholars Fund supports young African American students who are going to college full time and demonstrate high levels of academic achievement and community service. The Fund aims to have an impact on improving African American educational attainment, particularly among males. Overall, the high school graduation rate among Black students in Connecticut is 78 percent compared to 87 percent for all students and 92 percent for white students, according to the Connecticut Dept. of Education. While this gap has closed in the past five years, the numbers for Black male students are going in the wrong direction.

In the 2012-13 school year, estimates indicate a national graduation rate of 59 percent for Black males, 65 percent for Latino males and 80 percent for White males, according to the Schott Foundation. This represents a widening gap between Black and White males, increasing from 19 percentage points in school year 2009-10 to 21 percentage points in 2012-13. In Connecticut, the Black male graduation rate is estimated to be 58 percent.

The Promising Scholars Fund aims to reduce these gaps by helping remove the economic burden of college. It recently began offering four-year commitments to its recipients. UConn senior Quian Callender of Middletown was the second Promising Scholar to receive the scholarship for four consecutive years. Providing scholarships for all four years to every approved applicant is a priority goal of The Fund, but more resources are required to make that dream a reality.

Callender is the founder and president of the UCONN Honors in Business Association and a member of the UCONN Student Union Board of Governors. An honors student majoring in healthcare management, he will be applying to graduate programs in health administration and public health.

"I'm excited to be a change agent. I don't know what job I want because it might not even exist yet," Callender said. "I know that I want to make a difference."

Janelle Cooper, who graduates from Hillhouse this year, will attend Tuskegee University's engineering program, where she plans to study mechanical engineering. Always attracted to math and sciences, Cooper follows in the footsteps of her father, a math teacher, and an uncle who is an engineer and who holds a few patents.

"I've always been interested in how things work, in taking things apart and putting them back together," said Cooper.

By attending a dual enrollment program with Southern Connecticut State University, combined with her acceptance to Tuskegee's accelerated FASTREC program, Cooper is amassing enough credits to jumpstart her path to an advanced degree.

"I want to have my PhD in five years," she said.

For Smith, going to college gave her confidence during a time of personal crisis. Shortly into her freshman year, the death of her grandmother left her without a main source of support in her life. She began to doubt herself and felt lost. But after visiting New Haven during a break and seeing peers stuck in place, she reached back to her grandmother's words, and rededicated herself to school. She is majoring in psychology and hopes to be a doctor one day.

"I realized that this is what I was meant to do," she said.

Other 2015 Promising Scholars include Evenson Andre and Henry Gedeon, who both graduate from Westhill High School in Stamford this year. Evenson plans to attend UCONN in the Fall and Gedeon plans to attend University of Hartford.

To support the Promising Scholars Fund and its work to grow scholarships for African American students, visit www.promisingscholarsfund.org.

The Promising Scholars Fund is one of approximately 100 individually-named scholarship funds at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven that helps students pursue their academic endeavors. Information about other scholarship opportunities from funds at The Community Foundation can be found online at www.cfgnh.org/scholarships.