The program has put higher education within reach for five children in a struggling first-generation family

The Velez siblings (left to right) Jacob, Veronica, Daniel, Rebecca, and Isaac
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

“Before the program, I only saw my limits. I was going to take a training class and get a license for electrical work and do what I could with that. But future scholars has enabled me to make my goals greater.
– Isaac Velez

Jacob, the youngest of five in the Velez family, is under a lot of pressure to start thinking about college, although he is only 11 years old.

Pursuing higher education, and all the opportunities that come with it, had seemed far out of reach to his siblings most of the time they were growing up in a struggling first-generation family.

But then his eldest sister Rebecca became a Rutgers Future Scholar. His brother Isaac soon followed her lead. Then Veronica. Then Daniel. Four siblings in the Piscataway family were accepted into the program that helps low-income students get ready for college and then covers tuition and fees – if they are admitted to Rutgers.

Rutgers Future Scholars presented a life changing opportunity for the entire Velez family. It’s given Isaac and Daniel a chance to follow their dreams to study engineering and revive the construction company their father was forced to close during the economic downturn. The program helped Rebecca discover her passion for learning and introduced Veronica to accounting, a career path perfectly suited for her love of math.

“Before the program, I only saw my limits,’’ said Isaac, a senior at Piscataway High School. “I was going to take a training class and get a license for electrical work and do what I could with that. But future scholars has enabled me to make my goals greater.’’

Each year the future scholars program accepts 200 students – 50 each from Rutgers host communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark and Camden. The students are recommended by their middle school principal, receive year-round support and services and participate in intensive summer programs on campus.

Rebecca was accepted into the first class of future scholars and is now a sophomore at Rutgers. For her, getting into the program seemed like fate. Her family had moved to Piscataway in 2007, the year the program launched and began accepting students from the district.

It changed the way she thought about her future.

“I remember sitting in the library on College Avenue for a humanities course taking notes off of a Power Point. That is when I realized I loved this,’’ Rebecca said. “I was falling in love with being there and it made me want to be a student. Without the program I don't think I would have been so interested in furthering my education. They made me feel like I had to go to college.’’

For Veronica, a high school junior, watching her sister get accepted to Rutgers reinforced her desire to make the most out of being in the program.

“Rebecca did it, now we all have to do it,’’ Veronica said. “We saw it’s possible.’’

Luis and Antonia Velez with their daughters Veronica and Rebecca
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Future scholars also lifted a burden on their parents, Antonia and Luis, who were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States to raise a family. They wanted their children to go onto a four-year college, an opportunity they did not have. But they had no means to pay tuition for five children.

“It would be impossible for us,’’ Antonia said. “My husband is the only one who works. This is a big window that has opened. It’s a blessing.’’

The parents have been proud to watch how their children have flourished in the program.

“I see the change in them,’’ Luis said. “It has opened their minds. They don’t want to lose the opportunity to go to Rutgers. They are interested in going to school now.’’

The siblings' story demonstrates how education can transform a family, said Aramis Gutierrez, director of Rutgers Future Scholars. Out of 1,400 students in the program, 95 percent of the first two graduating classes have gone on to higher education, with more than 200 attending Rutgers.

“We are seeing the reverberating effect of what hope and opportunity can offer,’’ he said.  “Programs like Rutgers Future Scholars can uplift communities by first uplifting families.”

Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management, described education as the primary vehicle that can help break the cycle of poverty.

"Individuals who have a strong desire, coupled with a strong work ethic, will have opportunities to improve their lives significantly,’’ McAnuff said.

For Veronica, future scholars helped her find a career path and lifted any worries that she can work toward her goals. This past summer she decided she wanted to pursue a career in accounting during a visit to the offices of Ernst & Young that the future scholars program arranged.

“I don't have to worry about how I am going to work and get loans to be able to go to college,’’ Veronica said. “Now I can focus on school.’’

For the youngest member of the Velez family who watched his brothers and sisters become future scholars, college seems inevitable. Jacob is growing up with a different perspective on his future after watching his four older siblings participate in a program that changed their fortunes by giving them a shot at higher education.

“A lot of people say if you go to college you make more money and have better opportunities for jobs,’’ Jacob said. “I think it’s a good thing.’’