Making the transition from high school to college can be a difficult process, especially if the student is the first in generations to pursue a tertiary degree. Research from the National Center for Education shows that without the necessary tools and support, first-generation students face hurdles that place them at a disadvantage from other students, making them 43 percent more likely to drop out of school. The College of Notre Dame, along with the Walmart Foundation and the Council of Independent Colleges, have partnered to create a solution to this disparity. As a part of the Trailblazers Scholars Program, on Sept. 16 the school celebrated 34 young women, all of whom are first-generation incoming freshmen.

Funded by a two-year $100,000 grant awarded to the College of Notre Dame by CIC and the Walmart Foundation, Trailblazers was created to provide financial assistance and resources to these aspiring future businesswomen, writers, psychologists, and leaders.

Briana Stacker, who attended high school in Edgewood, is excited to be a part of the inaugural class. “It’s a great help because this year I was very close to not being able to come here. We were denied for a lot of student loans and I really got here by the skin of my teeth. So the money will help a lot, especially next year,” said Stacker.

Mary Thomas, Stacker’s grandmother , added, “Her mother is a single parent and the additional financial aid will be really helpful to her, because it’s really expensive to go this school. We are extremely proud of her.”

Thomas attended the awards ceremony and luncheon and expressed tremendous pride in her granddaughter’s accomplishment. “She was always a bright student and we were hoping that she would go on to college and pursue her career to be a clinical psychologist,” she said. “This was her first-choice school, and I told her that you might not get your first choice, so when she was accepted through early admissions she was elated that she got accepted to her first choice.”

Meghan Ray, director of Corporate, Foundation, and Government Relations at the school, said that the funds will be used towards initiatives that go beyond traditional support or “the extra things that help students succeed and stay in college.”

“As first-generation students they don’t have family to lean on to help with new experiences and they might not be aware of the available resources. This gives them a cohort and fellowship that will help them to succeed together,” said Ray. The students will have access to peer mentors and workshops that involve them in experiential learning opportunities. They are also provided information on study tips, résumé building and internships, as well as regular advising and counseling by the school’s staff. During their sophomore year of matriculation, the young women will also receive a stipend which they can use to engage in research in their desired fields.

“This program means a lot to my family,” said Jasmine Odenat, one of the 10 African-American Trailblazers. “It takes a great burden off of us and helps to ensure that I will be able to stay here all four years,” she said. Odenat plans to pursue a degree in English and publish her first action-adventure novel in the near future.

After presenting awards of recognition to the scholars, College of Notre Dame President Mary Pat Seurkamp spoke about the importance of the program to the school. “The College of Notre Dame has always had a very diverse student body and first generation students have always been an important part of that. But as the demographics around the country change we are finding more and more first generation students coming to us. We know the things that they need and this grant makes it easier to provide the support and connectiveness that these students need. What this program allows us to do is to ensure they make it to the goal line in earning their college degree,” said Seurkamp.

Sen. Joan Conway (D-43), chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, attended the event and dished out some advice for the young women. “It’s hard work and commitment and I think they will definitely work hard. It’s about access to quality education and this is an institution that I feel will provide that,” said Conway. “They are first-generation students and I think it speaks well to them that they were able to qualify. And not only does it help them as a student but I think it will do wonders for Baltimore City and our community when they branch out to help others.”