Simona Vareikaite, SSH’12, remembers clearly the moment she realized she had to make a change.
She was 13 years old and had spent middle school in the Bronx skipping classes and hanging out with a bad crowd. She didn’t see the point of school. Her weekend job as a custodian—earning money for her financially struggling family—felt more fulfilling.
Then, the letter arrived. In New York City, students must apply to get into their preferred public high school. Vareikaite’s letter from the city said she had not been accepted to any of the 10 schools she’d hoped to attend. Her only option was a low-performing high school in her neighborhood.
“It felt horrible,” she says. “All of these friends around me were happy, and I was trying to figure out where I would end up.”
The disappointment launched Vareikaite on a journey to remake herself. In high school, she improved her grades and earned a Torch scholarship from Northeastern—a full scholarship offered each year for 10 to 12 first-generation college students. Today, Vareikaite works for Jeter’s Leaders, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps teens achieve academic excellence, develop leadership skills, and aspire to college degrees.
Now in its 10th year, the Torch program has produced 50 graduates from five classes who work in diverse fields: from politics and finance to science and journalism. All overcame extraordinary odds—including economic hardships and time in foster care—to make it to college. Along the way, they transformed from promising students into confident, well-rounded scholars.
Vareikaite emigrated from Lithuania to the U.S. at age 10 with her mother, dad, and brother. The family, which had come from a small, close-knit town, moved into a cramped Bronx apartment, where they felt lonely and lost in the big city. Vareikaite had no place to turn for comfort: Her father struggled with alcohol addiction, and her mother spent long hours cleaning office buildings for low pay. The neighborhood and Vareikaite’s public middle school were infested with drugs, guns, and gangs.
By eighth grade, Vareikaite was regularly skipping school. The high-school rejection letter was her wake-up call. She badly wanted out of the Bronx and needed to up her game.
In high school, Vareikaite found new friends: three girls who, like her, aspired to excel and leave the Bronx. She committed herself to her favorite sport—basketball—and became a star player. The coach, Lary Greiner, went out of his way to mentor members of his team, even inviting the students to dinners with his family. Ironically, athletics forced Vareikaite to make academics a priority. “If you didn’t do well in school, you couldn’t play, which would have been like taking away life from me,” she says. “Going to class seemed like a small sacrifice.”
By senior year, Vareikaite was student government president and fifth in her class. She was enrolled in Jeter’s Leaders, the nonprofit where she now works.
Vareikaite didn’t consider herself a brilliant student; her high school wasn’t exactly rigorous. But at a friend’s urging, she applied and was accepted to Torch. She headed to Boston. “The (Torch) program didn’t define me by my GPA or SAT scores. It recognized me for my potential,” she says. “I was called a ‘scholar,’ but I didn’t feel like one yet.”
Torch Scholars are required to participate in a six-week summer immersion program before beginning freshman year. They attend four to six hours of classes a day, work on-campus jobs, and attend study hall at night. The program is a crash course to help Torch Scholars brush up on core subjects and prepare for college-level work.
Vareikaite cried nearly every day of the summer program. Her math and writing skills were well below par, and she received Cs, Ds, and Fs on tests. To avoid falling further behind, she often studied past midnight.
“It was pure hell,” she says. “High school hadn’t prepared me for college at all. There were a lot of tears and sleepless nights. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not ready for this.’”
Vareikaite felt out of place socially, too. She had come to Northeastern “with an edge,” sporting a Bronx, tough-girl attitude. But fellow Torch Scholars, many of whom had grown up in similar circumstances, penetrated Vareikaite’s armor. The scholars cooked together, comforted one other, and stayed up late together to study.
“The people I met in college were like a true family,” she says. “They were there for me any time of day. I knew I wasn’t alone; I had this posse. Having people cheering for you makes you believe you are capable.
“Other [Torch Scholars] knew where I was coming from—some were even from the Bronx—and I started to think, maybe I do belong here. Maybe I was brought here for a reason.”
With hard work and tutoring, Vareikaite earned good grades as a freshman and a sophomore, made the dean’s list, and gave up basketball to concentrate on school. Her academic momentum ground to a halt in the fall of her junior year, when she performed poorly in three classes. She considered quitting one or more classes, but a Torch advisor convinced her to stay put. She realized she had been playing it safe in all of her classes, rarely speaking up or exercising her full intelligence. Determined to change that situation, she began raising her hand and finding her voice.
“It triggered something in me,” she says. “I saw other kids who were confident and outspoken, and I didn’t want to sit back anymore.”
Hurdles outside the classroom
Rigorous coursework was not the only thing that tested Vareikaite’s resolve. Daily life presented its own challenges. As wealthier students relaxed on weekends and received spending money from parents, Vareikaite had to fend for herself—and worry about her family.
Her mother had been injured in a job-related accident and could no longer work. Her father was doing sporadic construction jobs. She felt a duty to contribute and send money home.
A criminal justice major, Vareikaite took early-morning classes so she could work one or two jobs in the afternoon and send money home to help her parents. She tutored, proctored, and worked in the registrar’s office by day and studied at night. When she stayed in Boston to work over academic breaks or during the summer, other students and Northeastern staffers offered her food and places to stay.
“I would look out the window and see other students playing Frisbee or relaxing on the lawn, and I’d be in an office typing away because I couldn’t call home and ask for money. The schedule could be exhausting, but it helped to balance me.”
Even as she focused on school and work, Vareikaite pushed herself to try experiences that she had never dreamed of as a teen. She saved up money to study abroad for six months at an Australian university. She got a behind-the-scenes look at police work during a co-op in the Cambridge Police Department. And she teamed up with three other Torch Scholars to co-found a nonprofit, which they named DRYVE, to help underprivileged kids overseas. The group spent several months each year raising money to do community service projects—including building a playground and renovating a school—in the Dominican Republic during spring break.
Coming full circle
The day before her May 2012 graduation, Vareikaite took to the podium at a Torch Scholars lunch and recounted to a crowd of students and parents her unusual path to college. The audience included her own parents, brother, and high-school basketball coach, all visiting Boston for the first time.
In a clear, confident voice, she described how the program shaped her. “Torch encompasses what it means day in and day out to persist: the grit, the grind, the sacrifice at every level—personally, emotionally, academically, professionally. It fostered in me a great sense of purpose,” she said.
The program also inspired in Vareikaite a desire to give back. Her teenage ambition to leave the Bronx morphed into an interest in mentoring the type of underserved kids she once was. Having come full circle as a program coordinator at Jeter’s Leaders, Vareikaite sees glimpses of her younger self in the ambitious, streetwise teenagers she mentors.
She is contemplating the next step in her journey, which may include a master’s degree.
“I learned in Torch that anything I want to do in life, I can,” she says. “When I first came to Northeastern, I didn’t believe in myself. Now I know that all I need to do is push myself and I’ll get there.”
A worthy investment
The Torch Scholars Program continues Northeastern’s century-old commitment to educational opportunity by offering up to a dozen full scholarships each year to students who will be the first in their families to graduate from college.
The program began in 2005 with a $1.25 million donation from trustee emeritus Anthony Manganaro, E’67, H’08, a successful businessman in real estate, self-storage, and medical supplies. To date, support from his family totals $8.75 million. Manganaro envisioned Torch as a way to assist students who might not enter college with the best grades or test scores but who have shown motivation and commitment in other ways—students like he once was.
$21.7 million donated to the Torch program as of 2015
54 gifts of more than $100,000
27,000 service hours completed by Torch Scholars to date
80% vs. 45% the five-year graduation rate for Torch Scholars compared to first-generation college students nationwide
Photo (top): Brian Ach; (middle): Kristie Gillooly