When Hecmaly Rivera crossed the Commencement stage in May to get her bachelor’s degree, she had already dreamed it a thousand times. When she was a fifth grader at Maria Sanchez School in one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods, John Hunt, a retired insurance executive, promised to send the Sanchez kids to college if they worked hard in school.
“I’m not walking alone on that stage,” at graduation, Rivera said. “I’m walking with Mr. Hunt, and every person in school and in Our Piece of the Pie (a non-profit) who supported me.” John Hunt died several years ago, but his wife, Carol, has maintained a connection with the University and the scholarship students.
Rivera is the first of the Hunt Scholars to graduate from USJ . Three others are following her, as well as several at the University of Hartford and UConn. Hunt, who began tutoring Sanchez kids in math, eventually realized much more was needed to lift them from the mire of poverty.
Allyson Rodriguez, a Hunt Scholar in her junior year at USJ , remembers that Hunt bought her first pair of glasses. Every few weeks, he met the students to discuss their grades and talk about their opportunities. Their pictures and their letters filled his briefcase. He was in the audience at their school events. Rodriguez, whose parents died before she got to Hartford High School, remembers venting her anger at Hunt as he looked at her failing grades. No way did he understand her life, she thought. “If you don’t like your life,” he said, “use your anger to fight for something better.” “He had a way of putting you on the spot, but nicely,” Rodriguez said. She remembers demanding, “What’s in it for you? What do you want from me?”
And what was this scholarship, Rivera and her mom wondered? “Mr. Hunt said basically my four years of college are paid for. My mom and I realized — this is a really big thing.”
In 2005, when John and Carol Hunt received the College’s Heart of Life Award, he said, “We all will be blessed when some of the kids whose lives we’ve touched go off to college. We will be blessed again when their children and grandchildren repeat that step because their parents, our scholarship kids, took that first step.”
At USJ , the Successful Beginnings Program provides extra help for first-year students who are underprepared. The support the Hunt Scholars had enjoyed since their days at Sanchez continued.
But by the end of her first year, Rivera faced academic probation. She decided to remove all distractions and try harder. She moved back home. She stayed out so late that her mother wanted to know where she had been. “The Trinity Library — they’re open until 3 a.m.”
With determination and strong support from her advisers, Rivera pulled up her grades. She put a picture of the Hunts in her bedroom to remind herself of their gift. But to graduate with her class, she needed more credits. So last summer, she took three short, intense courses. Then, during winter break, she took two more.
Now, with her college degree in hand, she remembers a day in fifth grade when a street-smart Hartford police officer said, “Some of you aren’t going to make it through high school. Some of the girls are going to get pregnant. But some of you … are going to college.”
She has her diploma. “It was a lot of work, but I made it,” she said. “I want my brothers, my sisters, and my cousins to know you have to work so hard to accomplish something.”
When the last of the original Sanchez kids graduate, the scholarship money will go to other deserving students.