Bright Minds

Bright Minds Illustration by Dave Cutler
Illustration by Dave Cutler

A new path to college for promising students who face obstacles

Ndey Hydara is 17 years old and a first-year student at Colorado State University, yet she already has a life motto: Don’t waste opportunities.

Hydara developed her mantra watching her mother, a single mom from Gambia who works as a certified nursing assistant and has raised two daughters in Denver. The concept took hold when Hydara was a junior in high school. Aspiring to a career in medicine, she completed an internship with the nursing staff at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She observed premature babies and met gravely ill schoolchildren. Then, Hydara interacted with a 15-year-old patient, a boy her own age, who had suffered gunshot wounds and lost use of his legs.

“It was really sad and eye- opening,” Hydara, a first-generation student majoring in biochemistry, recalled. “I had been really focused on little things – like, if I didn’t do well on a test, I would be freaking out. It made me realize there are people in this world going through a lot.

“It motivated me,” she continued. “I know I want to take advantage of all the opportunities that come to me because I know not everyone has those opportunities.”

As she completed the hospital internship, Hydara pursued another opportunity: She joined Minds Matter Colorado. The state chapter of a nationwide nonprofit, Minds Matter Colorado offers intensive mentoring for academically talented high schoolers from low-income families. It connects bright students with dedicated adult mentors and preparatory resources to attain college entrance and success. Programs are rigorous, immersive, and motivational, linking students to leadership and career experiences; helping them prep for college entrance exams; and conducting weekly sessions focused on college and scholarship applications.

With this readiness, Minds Matter students are invariably accepted to colleges and universities with scholarship support – often with multiple enrollment offers.

A new alliance between Minds Matter Colorado and the Colorado State University System provides students in the program with clear paths to attend CSU in Fort Collins, CSU Global, and CSU-Pueblo. The partnership, formalized earlier this year, reinforces a fundamental shared goal: providing access to higher education for all Colorado students with the talent and motivation to earn it. In finalizing the agreement, CSU System leaders noted that merit-based educational opportunities transform the lives of individual students and families, with critical benefits for communities, the workforce, and the economy.

“Talent is our next gold rush,” Savinay Chandrasekhar, executive director of Minds Matter Colorado, said. “In the mid-1800s, people were smart enough to look under the ground to find gold and realize the riches there. Now, we’ll be smart enough to look into the communities we haven’t looked into and find that there are riches there, as well.”

The partnership between Minds Matter Colorado and the CSU System grants conditional university enrollment to high school juniors in the readiness program. Students who want to attend a System school must then follow through to demonstrate academic achievement. The agreement also encourages regular interaction among Minds Matter students and CSU staff, so that students learn about degree offerings; are well-equipped to successfully apply for scholarships and financial aid; are ready to transition to university life; and are connected to academic support networks once enrolled.

While a number of students from the Minds Matter program have attended System schools before, the new partnership strengthens the connections and helped attract a new cohort of Minds Matter grads this academic year.

Hydara is among those students. She decided to enroll in Fort Collins after attending a summer leadership program on campus before her senior year in high school. Called the Black Issues Forum, the weeklong offering attracts African American students from across the country and guides them in researching a range of cultural and socioeconomic issues relevant to people of color. The program struck a chord with Hydara, who was born in Seattle and spent much of her young childhood with extended family in Gambia, where she learned to speak Wolof, the language of her African relatives, and absorbed her family’s culture.

At CSU, Hydara saw opportunity to study biochemistry – a mix of her favorite subjects – and to pursue her goal of attending medical school to become a physician. She graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade point average and 30 college credits, after taking advantage of concurrent enrollment through her Denver high school. Those and other achievements helped Hydara land a full-ride scholarship to attend Colorado State. Now completing her first semester, Hydara has a full load of science classes, has made new friends through the university’s Black/African American Cultural Center, and finds academic support in a residential community for students with diverse backgrounds.

“It’s been really great,” she said. “My vision of my future is coming together.”