Off to Harvard, Tarrytown Scholar Aids Immigrant Students and Their Families

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by Barrett Seaman – 

Even before she took her first class as a first-year student at Harvard, Amy Chalan was giving back to her hometown of Tarrytown and, in particular, to the area’s Hispanic community—and with Harvard’s help.

During her summer following graduation from The Hackley School, Chalan supplemented the work she had been doing for Hudson Scholars, an academic enrichment program for area low-income, academically promising middle schoolers, by starting a program for their parents.

Born in Ecuador, Chalan and her family ultimately settled in Tarrytown where she attended the Washington Irving School through the fifth grade. Teachers at the school, along with the admissions department at nearby Hackley, recognized her potential, and she was awarded a full scholarship starting in the sixth grade.

“I kind of felt different from everybody,” she said, noting that she was one of only two Hispanic children in her Hackley class. She struggled to fit in. Her mother, with limited command of English, couldn’t help her with her homework, but using her native ability and hard work, she excelled.

When Hackley teacher David Sykes started Hudson Scholars four years ago as a way to give low-income students at Washington Irving an academic leg up, Chalan was quick to volunteer. Each summer, a cohort of 15 such students from the fifth grade begin four weeks of classes in English, math, science and other subjects, including physical education. During the regular academic year, they were offered weekly tutoring sessions at the Warner Library and monthly Saturday activities at Hackley. The three-year program ends at the ninth grade.

“Amy came to me and volunteered to work with these students,” said Sykes. When she and another student volunteer neared graduation, they passed the torch to two other rising Hackley seniors. Then last spring, after she had officially enrolled at Harvard, Chalan learned of the college’s new Summer Starts With Service Program, or 3SP, which is designed to encourage incoming students to do some form of public service before matriculating. Those who do so and are able to document their work will receive a $1,500 stipend.

“I felt really connected with the [Hudson] Scholars,” Chalan recalled. “We were doing an amazing job with the kids, but there was one part where we could do better.” That, she felt, was with the parents who, like her own mother, often lacked the language and cultural skills needed to help their children at school. So with Sykes’ help, she reached out to the families of the current crop of Hudson Scholars and organized two workshops, which she ran. About 20 came. The topics included stress management, nutrition and obesity, for which she got help from Neighbors Link and Open Door Family Medical Center, both of which knew the local Hispanic community through their own services. They also included practical advice on immigration policies and pressures.

Immigration is a subject near, if not dear, to Chalan’s heart. Undocumented, as was the rest of her family, she applied for and was granted “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status” two years ago and now has a Green Card, a Social Security number and the promise of citizenship in five years. The  catch, she says, is that, unlike other immigrants that have obtained legal status, she cannot file in support of any relatives in their own efforts to get on the path to citizenship.

As she prepared to depart for Cambridge in late August, Chalan said she was “really, really frightened” by the prospect. Sykes, her mentor at Hackley, had no such qualms. “Amy’s awesome,” he pronounced.

As if working with Hispanic kids and their parents wasn’t enough for one summer, Chalan also spent time working at a stem cell laboratory at Columbia University. She plans to study bioengineering at Harvard, but allows that she is increasingly drawn to the idea of teaching. Now that would really be giving back.

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