At Open House, Scholars Share Home, Challenges

From the outside, the three-story house on the corner of Main and Morton resembles other iconic Federal-style homes in the neighborhood. Once through the blue front door, however, it’s clear this house is like no other. Over the last 50 years, 140 students of color had lived here on their way to college and successful careers.

Front of House

A Better Chance of Andover, a nonprofit whose mission is closing the education gap for students of color, recently opened the doors of its dormitory at 134 Main Street to visitors for an annual holiday open house. About 47 people, including curious neighbors, volunteers and their children, and board members past and present, attended.

On this Sunday in early December, the eight female scholars in residence put studies aside to serve as tour guides, providing an inside view of their life together as they attend Andover High School and prepare for college.
Smiling broadly, Abigail Shugert, a freshman, eagerly led a tour of the upstairs bedrooms – four on the second floor and five on the third. The rooms – painted in shades of pink, blue, peach, and sea-green – are impressively tidy. Large dressers serve as dividers between beds, providing a touch of personal space in the shared dorm rooms. Shoes, stuffed animals, and books are all neatly arranged.

Of the eight scholars, Shugert has traveled the farthest for a better education. Home for her is East Los Angeles. Moving into the dormitory residence, Shugert shared that she felt overwhelmed, partly by the size of the house, but more by the enormity of the moment. “I’m actually going to live here for four years,” she remembers thinking.

Although the grand staircase that once connected all three floors is long gone (closed in for fire regulations), many elements of the original 1810 house remain on display. “I am heartbroken if I have to take out something original,” said ABC of Andover President Susan Connolly, who also serves as House Manager. “So we’ve kept the moldings and chair rails, marble fireplace surrounds and mantles. We want the old character to shine through.” Since very old houses settle over time, some of the upstairs hallways slope downward.

In contrast, the first floor features a modern dining room and kitchen, added along with the Resident Director’s apartment in 2003. The large dining room table easily seats 12 and there are always more chairs. The Resident Director and one of two Resident Assistants join the scholars at nightly meals. “At dinner, we often break into a rap,” claimed Resident Assistant Nurilys Cintron. A love for music runs through the house along with the Federal-style details.

The most popular room? A small, private study with piano, couch, desk, and large whiteboard. This room is light and airy and can be reserved in advance, particularly since it is great for collaborating with a tutor or working on group projects. It’s like a room of one’s own in a house where most things are shared.

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Running a house with eight teenage girls is not easy, even with girls as responsible and accomplished as this group. Being organized is huge, so a large dry-erase board in the dining room is used to track everyone’s daily schedule. Weekly chores are spelled out in detail and posted on a bulletin board, and all scholars are assigned an area of the house to clean. Garbage and recycling, vacuuming, and scrubbing bathrooms are jobs that are rotated and shared. Mandatory study hours are 7:00-9:45 p.m., with lights out at 11:30 p.m.

“I wish my house could run this well,” declared Host Parent and Andover resident Amy Holland, who dropped in on the open house with her daughter. “I wish I could have a study time everyone would follow.”

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At the end of the open house, a few scholars sat down in the computer room, a large study hall of cubicles, and talked about their challenges and the sisterhood of the ABC of Andover program. Most of the girls come from communities with under-performing schools and sometimes complicated family situations back home which might distract from the focus on school.

Olamide Olayinka, a junior from the Bronx, New York, is thriving at AHS, performing in Show Choir and winning parts in the student musicals, but at the same time she is trying not to stress over college applications. “I am trying to enjoy this moment,” she shared, but admitted she is finding it increasingly difficult as she struggles to narrow her list of potential colleges.

In particular, Olayinka is feeling the weight of hometown expectations. Next year, she will travel back to her old middle school in the Bronx to announce her college choice. “I cannot disappoint,” she exclaimed. Her mood lifted when President Connolly told her there are ABC of Andover alumni who have attended some of her dream schools and could provide mentoring and encouragement.

Junior Skye Padovani, also from the Bronx, was in the midst of writing a college essay. Instead of feeling daunted by the task, she was up for the challenge. The essay was on identity, and Padovani found meaning in each part of her name and heritage. “Before, if someone asked me, who are you? I would say, Skye,” she shared. “Now I can say so much more.”

Shugert, one of two freshmen, confided that fitting in at school has not been easy. In her hometown of East L.A., the population is about 97% Latino. Moving to Andover was a bit of a culture shock. “I feel like I’m the only Mexican-American at Andover High School,” she stated. Since each ABC student is partnered with a family with whom they spend one evening each week and one weekend per month, she is grateful to have Delia Vallejo, who is also Mexican-American, as her “host mom.” These host family relationships are often the beginning of a life-long friendship.

Because the house is almost always filled with scholars, friends, and volunteers, no one ever feels alone in the large living quarters. At ABC of Andover, everyone starts out strangers but end up family. “You don’t expect to be like sisters but that’s what happens,” says Jenni Nguyen, a junior. “It’s fun to see each other grow up.”

If you would like to get involved in volunteering with ABC of Andover, please contact Volunteer Coordinator Nicki Wiggins at volunteer@AndoverABC.org.

Study Room

Junior Skye Padovani looks on as scholars read and play games in the small study, one of the most popular rooms in the ABC dorm.