School, community rally for Latina

School, Latino Network Rally For Star Student
by Adzua Agyapon, New Haven Independent | July 1, 2009

Michelle Palma, a rising Amistad Academy senior, had a ticket to a prized summer stop on the path to becoming an architect. But she couldn’t afford the fare.

Palma was thrilled to be accepted to the prestigious Cornell University Summer College to study architecture. But her heart dropped when saw the $8,800 price. Her family couldn’t afford that. She applied for financial aid. Cornell turned her down.

Then teachers and benevolent donors stepped in, including a growing network of local Latino philanthropists. Palma is now on the Cornell campus in upstate New York.

All Amistad students must complete an enrichment program during at least one of their summers. This will be the third time Michelle Palma has gone away for a summer program, but the first time she is exposed to a rigorous academic program in the field of her choice.

Palma became interested in the Cornell program after hearing about it from one of her friends. A top student at Amistad Academy, Palma was accepted soon after she applied in March.

“The stars just aligned for Michelle,” said her guidance counselor, Emery Sykes.

They began aligning when Palma mentioned her predicament to an SAT tutor, David Noah.

“It’s the classic case,” Noah said. “She’s done everything right. Then she gets into this program and she can’t afford it. It sucks. She’s put in all that effort.”

Noah, then a third-year student at the Yale Law School, decided to draw on his connections to help Palma with the program costs.

“Teachers feel this way. You want to cultivate a sense of possibility. You want kids to feel like good things can happen. So I said, ‘Let me send a few emails. It’s the least I can do.’

“She’s an incredibly hard-working and really focused student, the kind every teacher loves to have. She’s such a deserving kid, so it was almost autopilot.”

Noah contacted his law professor, Robin Golden (who’s also a former official with the city schools system and housing authority). She emailed John Padilla, a senior fellow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Padilla and his wife Frances Padilla helped found the Progreso Latino Fund to promote Hispanic philanthropy. Golden figured Michelle’s challenge would fit with that mission.

Padilla agreed. “I’d never met Michelle before, “he said, but she had a “really compelling story.” The same day he received the email about Palma, Padilla went to lunch with a philanthropist and shared her story. After lunch, his friend (who wished to remain anonymous) wrote a $4,400 check. That secured Palma a seat in the program.

Padilla forwarded David Noah’s message about Michelle Palma’s need to 30 friends, many of whom are also members of the Progreso Latino Fund. He kept the fundraising ball rolling by donating another $100. “Within an hour we had $750,” he said.

A week later the group had raised $9,200 for Palma’s tuition, room and board, fees and books.

Donors wanted to “make something accessible for someone really deserving who we know will [have] a life changing experience,” Padilla said. “This was a really good way to build the community around one of our kids; a young Latina who is doing everything right.”

Before leaving for Cornell this past Monday, Palma expressed her gratitude to her sponsors. She said she looks forward to “meeting more people from diverse backgrounds and different countries” and gaining college experience and exposure to architecture.

Sponsors plan to hold a reception for her when she returns to Amistad Academy in the fall.

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