Higher ed has a problem: The majority of students who begin college after graduating from public, urban high schools don’t finish. To address this completion gap, the author and Boston Globe Magazine staff writer Neil Swidey, A91, founded the Alray Scholars Program. Through mentoring and scholarships, the decade-old nonprofit helps dropouts return to campus and earn a degree. (The number of scholarship recipients who’ve graduated is set to reach thirty-five by the end of this semester.)

Reality check: I wrote a book in 2008 called The Assist about high school basketball and I got to know the students. A lot of them made it to college, but then they struggled. I wanted to donate proceeds of the book to an organization that would help them stay in school, but I couldn’t find any nonprofits doing that work. There were nonprofits that did a tremendous job launching students, but none were dealing with the reality that two out of every three students who graduated from public, urban high schools were not finishing college and had nowhere to turn for support.

The strategy: We have mentors working one-on-one with students. After our mentees graduate, they are part of the Alray Scholars community and become mentors themselves.

Finding inspiration: I grew up outside Fall River, Massachusetts, and both my parents were teachers. I learned from them the kind of slow and tedious but very rewarding process of changing one life at a time, and finding and supporting really good people who have been written off.

The payoff: When you do the work one soul at a time, you get to see intimately what it means when good young people can change the trajectory of their lives—and they do that with their own grit. We have just figured out a way to lower hurdles.

On turning ten: We are small, but we punch above our weight. So often it’s little things that can get in the way of a student’s success. For instance, a single mother was set on returning to community college, but her Pell grant was delayed, and she needed funds to cover her MBTA pass and first-semester tuition. We said we’d front the money. That kind of intervention is possible because we’re small and nimble—we have an up-close understanding about all our students and an agility you might not find at a larger nonprofit.

If you’d like to donate to the program, visit alray.org/donate.

Portrait of Laura Ferguson

Laura Ferguson, senior writer at Tufts and regular Tufts Now contributor, can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.