Besa Beja moved to the United States from Albania with her family nine years ago, after their safety was threat­ened by the polit­ical insta­bility there. She worked to help sup­port her family and served as their trans­lator, and par­tic­i­pated in a variety of college-​​prep pro­grams while earning a 3.4 GPA at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

Today, Beja — a busi­ness major and Dean’s List reg­ular — is among the 11 stu­dents who make up the first grad­u­ating class of Torch Scholars, a unique group who, as freshmen, were described aptly in Northeastern’s alumni magazine:

These are stu­dents who haven’t been dealt the best hands in life, yet they work very hard, have nat­ural lead­er­ship abil­i­ties and dis­play spe­cial reserves of per­se­ver­ance. In short: Pre­cisely the kind of stu­dent who has his­tor­i­cally made North­eastern great.

That descrip­tion speaks to the broader goal of the five-​​year-​​old Torch Scholars Program.

Torch iden­ti­fies highly moti­vated first-​​generation stu­dents who have over­come sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles and gives them a chance. It elim­i­nates bar­riers to admis­sion cre­ated by dif­fi­cult life cir­cum­stances, and offers unprece­dented edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­larly in expe­ri­en­tial learning and fac­ulty and staff mentoring.

For Beja, those oppor­tu­ni­ties included study-​​abroad expe­ri­ences in Japan and Italy, and three co-​​ops in her field of mar­keting. Beja has accepted a full-​​time posi­tion with one of her co-​​op employers, Johnson and Johnson, in California.

The pro­gram gave me the oppor­tu­nity to grow pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally and that gave me great con­fi­dence,” said Beja. “I walk out of North­eastern as a very proud alumna.”

Philomena Man­tella, senior vice pres­i­dent of enroll­ment man­age­ment and stu­dent life, calls Torch “a bold and inno­v­a­tive new pro­gram that is well posi­tioned to be a national model” for helping first-​​generation, low-​​income stu­dents enroll in col­lege and graduate.

Torch’s first class boasts a 100 per­cent grad­u­a­tion rate, unheard of in pro­grams that sup­port first-​​generation col­lege stu­dents, and the overall reten­tion rate for five classes exceeds 90 percent.

One of Beja’s class­mates, Odalis Polanco, explains the bond that moves Torch Scholars to achieve. “If I didn’t come to North­eastern as a Torch Scholar, I don’t think I’d be in col­lege,” he said. “I feel so grateful because North­eastern was the only school that offered me every­thing from aca­d­emic and finan­cial sup­port to many other resources. Torch really gives you so many oppor­tu­ni­ties and opens so many doors.”

The stu­dents were hon­ored at a lun­cheon yes­terday where family, friends, and North­eastern staff affil­i­ated with the Torch pro­gram cel­e­brated their impres­sive accom­plish­ments. Actor, musi­cian, and phil­an­thropist, Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J,was the keynote speaker at the lun­cheon where he imparted words of inspi­ra­tion and per­sonal expe­ri­ence to guide the stu­dents as they set off into the real world.

Smith’s speech fol­lowed remarks from North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph Aoun, who expressed his pride in the suc­c­cess had by the inau­gural class of Torch Scholars. Anthony Man­ga­naro, E’67, whose family has been gen­erous sup­porters of the pro­gram from its incep­tion five years ago, also spoke to the soon-​​to-​​be-​​graduates, and announced his com­mitt­ment to con­tinue to sup­port the suc­cessful pro­gram and foster its growth.

Watch a photo slideshow from yesterday’s luncheon.

The pro­gram receives nearly 500 nom­i­na­tions from across the country each year.Between 40 and 50 final­ists undergo a lengthy process of inter­views and rig­orous aca­d­emic and per­son­ality assess­ments to make the final selec­tion of 10 or 11 scholars. Cur­rently, the pro­gram includes stu­dents from urban and rural com­mu­ni­ties in 10 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia, as well as 11 coun­tries.
The sense of com­mit­ment felt by those who make it into the pro­gram trans­lates into a strong com­mu­nity ser­vice bent. Torch requires each scholar to per­form at least 100 hours of ser­vice a year, but many of the stu­dents exceed that.

Polanco part­nered with other Torch Scholars to create the non­profit group DRYVE (Dis­trib­uting Resources through Youth Vol­un­teer Efforts), which has rebuilt schools in the Dominican Republic, and pro­vided kids in need with clothing and other supplies.

Nadia Alvarez, a psy­chology major who grew up in San Diego, will focus on a career in social work, inspired by her co-​​op at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Boston and by a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram on con­flict res­o­lu­tion in Israel and Northern Ire­land. She will be pur­suing a master’s degree this fall in Boston College’s School of Social Work.

Polanco and Alvarez were named among Northeastern’s 100 Most Influ­en­tial Seniors.

The pro­gram has also had a more per­sonal impact on at least two mem­bers of this year’s class. When Alvarez attends Boston Col­lege, she will be joined there by her hus­band, Torch grad­uate Joseph Bor­dieri, a human ser­vices major also pur­suing a master’s in social work.

The couple is set to wed this August in Bordieri’s home­town of Foxbor­ough, Mass.