The Valedictorian Project: Helping Boston's High School High Achievers Continue to Thrive

Many of Boston's highest-achieving high school students struggle to complete a college degree. The Valedictorian Project aims to change that

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Have you ever looked back at your senior year in high school and thought, "I wonder what happened to the valedictorian?" For many Boston students at the top of the pack, the journey to academic success took unexpected detours.

The Boston Globe tracked down BPS valedictorians from the classes of 2005 to 2007. About a quarter of them failed to get a bachelor’s degree—even six years out of college. None earned a medical degree.

Now, a local nonprofit called The Valedictorian Project – inspired by the Globe’s reporting-- is giving graduates at or near the top of the class the support they need to stay in school and ensure their dreams turn into reality.

Walserson Bobo is a sophomore at Brown University, studying computer science and psychology. He’s on the pre-med track and working to be a psychiatrist, his work motived by a real-life experience: talking a close friend out of death by suicide back in middle school.

“At that moment it was like for me, like I feel like I could help people."

Financial Challenges Along the Path to a College Degree

Bobo graduated second in his class at Match Charter High School. And now on top of a rigorous Ivy League load, he’s working full time on the weekend to help support his family.

“For me it's more about the financial problems that I have to face.”

For instance, last summer Bobo wanted to complete a piece of his challenging pre-med course work. He had a scholarship but “they only pay for my class, not my dorm.” He worried he wouldn’t be able to do it. That’s where Amy McDermott and the valedictorian project come in. She did a little digging and suggested he apply for a job as a resident advisor in a dorm. That made it all work.

“It’s really hard to navigate a campus kind of bureaucracy and to be able to access resources that universities have, says McDermott, co-founder and executive director of The Valedictorian Project.

Financial hurdles are among multiple factors that can keep even the most talented students from achieving their goals.

“Finances are probably the biggest stressor for our students," McDermott said. “They are able to get financial aid and scholarships, but that doesn't quite cover everything in college. And they're often trying to find other resources on their campuses or other opportunities to be able to cover the costs of attending school, which is significantly high.”

McDermott shares the story of a college freshman in New Orleans. A hurricane hit and they had to evacuate the campus for several weeks.

“I don't know how I'm going to pay for the rest of the semester because I had planned to work, you know, I had a job at a coffee shop and I was counting on that money for this semester.”

Challenges Adjusting to Campus Culture

McDermott is clear: every student has a unique journey.

“A lot of our students are stepping onto campuses where there is a lot of wealth, legacy and experiences that didn't come up for them as much in high school.” And that, she said, can be very isolating.

Wilsi Taveras is a junior at Boston University studying hospitality and communications.

“My freshman year was very hard. The whole year I was remote,” said Taveras. “I came here in my sophomore year, and I felt like everybody already had their little group of friends and that I couldn’t just step in and be part of that. So, I’m still navigating where I feel comfortable.”

Wilsi is a first-generation college student. She told us she loved every minute of high school at the Boston Community Leadership Academy where she graduated number one in her class. But she said college has been different.

“I don’t have the same support or connections the most kids have going to college or knowing what steps to take.”

Taveras started in the business school. And was struggling. But with the help of the Valedictorian Project, Taveras pivoted to the school of hospitality.

“I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as people say. I thought that was the end of my college path.”

But now, like Bobo she too is on track to graduate.

“It’s been amazing,” said Taveras. “I feel like I’m in the right headspace, the right mindset to conquer everything that I set my mind to.”

The Valedictorian Project Approach

The organization works with 90 students from Boston. Now they’re expanding their reach to Worcester, Lawrence and Brockton.

“Each of our mentees gets two mentors with us, a peer mentor, so somebody a little bit closer to college age and a senior mentor or somebody a little bit further along in their career.”

The mentors steer students to the resources they need to get their diplomas, and troubleshoot any other problems they may have.

“Our hope is that our students can get through their college journey and into really meaningful and impactful and well-paying careers.”

Here at NBC10 Boston we will check in again with Wilsi Taveras and Walserson Bobo towards the end of the year for an update on their experiences.

You will find lots more information, including links to the original Boston Globe series which inspired the nonprofit at the Valedictorian Project website.

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