Rutgers REaCH Helps New Brunswick Students Despite Challenges

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—When a smart, quiet senior at New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School approached Alecia Bardachino to talk about college decisions, Bardachino was surprised because the girl had always been shy.

The brilliant senior had just been accepted to the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, a liberal arts program, but wanted to pursue her interest in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

The student felt that there was no one close to her who could give advice.

Bardachino introduced the senior to one of her friends with the Rutgers Women in STEM organization, and afterwards the girl thanked Bardachino, saying that she was so glad to have met her.

This is only one of countless stories that Bardachino, a recent graduate from the School of Arts and Sciences who majored in psychology and human resource management, could tell about her experience working in the Rutgers Early College Humanities Program, or "REaCH."

"It was just a really sweet moment," Bardachino said.

Martin Kempner, director of REaCH, founded the organization in 2008 with the support of then-President Richard Levis McCormick. Since then, the program has benefited over 500 students from school districts in New Jersey, including Piscataway, Camden, Newark and Jersey City.

Kempner was inspired to create the original concept of REaCH because of a desire to work with young people after spending ten years helping adults who lived in underserviced communities.

“At some point during that, I just thought I wanted to work with students, with people earlier in their lives,” Kempner said.

This fall, REaCH will continue its mentorship program at the New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School, founded over eight years ago and run by undergraduates to help high school students find their way through the college application process.

The Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program has already begun actively recruiting volunteers, offering sophomore and junior internships and credit in psychology.

“A primary goal of the program is to establish long-term and meaningful relationships between mentors and mentees,” Honors Dean Muffin Lord said in an email to students, explaining that the program will require a two-semester commitment.

But, Bardachino expressed concern about the future of REaCH and the high school's intentions to gradually downsize the program.

This year, the school asked for fewer mentors, and with the numerous changes in leadership over the years.

Changes in leadership include several school counselors who left their positions for different reasons.  Now that there is no counselor working directly with REaCH, mentors are coordinating with the administration instead.

While Bardachino says the staff does truly care about the students' interests, the reality is that there are many other aspects of student life, and REaCH is just one component that a busy administration may not have time to focus on.

She added that Rutgers student volunteers, who give up their free time and energy for the program, strive not to be a burden to the staff and want to be seen as valuable assets to the students' well-being.

What the mentors do is create grade-specific guidance for students from the beginning to end of their high school experience, targeting different challenges at each stage.

For first-years, mentors help them transition between middle school and high school, Bardachino said. They will also be guided towards exploring different career paths and dealing with the stress that comes from changing environments.

For sophomores, the focus is time-management and study skills.

For juniors and seniors, it is the nerve-wracking process of narrowing down colleges, completing an endless stream of applications and choosing their final destination.

Mentors also provide one-on-one counseling for any personal issues that a student might be dealing with. For all other academic and social concerns, students can attend small group sessions, Bardachino said.

Many students come from families with no previous exposure to the college application process, Kempner said, emphasizing the importance of maximizing their chances of success.

Due to the challenges at New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School, Bardachino admits that the future of the REaCH partnership is unclear, though her passion for helping the students has not dimished in the face of hardship.

"I feel very, very privileged to have been involved," she said. "It's literally the best experience I've had during my time at Rutgers."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that the principal of Health Sciences Technology High School was retiring. The person retiring was a different employee at New Brunswick High School.