Group photo of faculties and students in Merrimack College’s Pioneer Scholars awards
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Growing From Pioneers to Warriors

June 15, 2023 3 min read
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Through its partnership with Abbott Lawrence Academy, an accelerated honors high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Merrimack College’s Pioneer Scholars awards 10 full scholarships annually to high achieving and highly motivated high school students.

For decades, Merrimack College has enjoyed a deep and fruitful partnership with Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city of more than 89,000 about five miles north of the College.

At the center of that partnership is the Pioneers Scholars Program, through which Merrimack College provides full scholarships to high achieving and highly motivated high school students at Abbott Lawrence Academy, an accelerated honors high school within the Lawrence High School campus.

The program was born out of a partnership between the two institutions dating back to 2017. That year, Merrimack began offering early college courses to high school juniors and seniors.

“Our application process is more set up like the collegiate process where we look at the whole child through a range of data points,” said Stacey Ciprich, ALA’s founding principal. “Yes, we do have an exam, but students write in essays, short answer questions, (and hand in) recommendations from teachers and the people that know them best in their middle school experience.

The Early College Program initially offered two introductory level courses, but over time it expanded its offerings to include classes in psychology, engineering, computer science, mathematics, business, education and more.

The Baker-Polito Administration gave the Early College Program a state designation recognizing Merrimack College and Lawrence Public Schools’ efforts to prepare disadvantaged high school students for college academics at no cost to their families, while earning credit toward college graduation.

To date, nearly 350 Abbott Lawrence Academy students have enrolled in Merrimack’s early college program. The average student during the 2021-22 school year held a 3.4 GPA and earned 15 college credits.

“It sounds cliché but it changes lives,” said Ciprich, “When I got here (at Lawrence High School), before Abbot existed, we would have about 150 to 200 seniors. I would be lucky if we had three kids a year even apply to Merrimack, and maybe one would attend. Now we have, on average, 50 seniors (attending) out of 70, 80 or 90 applying, and that’s just from Abbot let alone the campus.”

Pioneer Scholars was created in 2019 in order to continue the success seen in the Early College Program. Ten top-performing students who completed the program are selected to receive a full scholarship to Merrimack College, which covers full tuition, room, board, comprehensive fees and a book stipend.

Students in the program also have access to a network of advisors that focus on intellectual, personal, and professional growth. Deborah Margolis, dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy where the Pioneer Scholars operates out of, said the program continues Merrimack’s tradition of advancing Augustininan values by focusing on building and serving a community and promoting social justice.

“It’s a wrap-around model,” Margolis continued. “There needs to be a lot of resources available to the students. It’s beyond just course advising – it’s about navigating college and navigating life.”

Meredith Fitzsimmons recently took over as the interim chief advisor for the Pioneer Scholars. As assistant dean of student advising and services, she oversees the program along with Russell Olwell, associate dean of the Winston School.

“One of the big pieces that we want to make sure that they always know they have is if they’re running into something where they have a question, they have a problem or they just don’t know what to do, they can always come to us and we will help them find an answer,” Fitzsimmons said. “Whatever it is they’re willing to share.”

Over the past four years, the Pioneer Scholars program found donors willing to sponsor additional scholarships for students at Lynn English High School, St. Mary’s High School in Lynn and Cathedral High School in Los Angeles. In total, Merrimack has welcomed 46 Pioneer Scholars.

Yarianna Burgos, one of the latest Pioneer Scholars, said she’s excited to attend Merrimack College in the fall. The early college courses she took with biology professor Michael Piatelli piqued her interest in pursuing a biochemistry degree.

“Coming from an immigrant (family) and living in Lawrence, there’s not many opportunities,” she said. “The Pioneer Scholars opened that door that I could go to college and do it for free. That lessens my worries about what I have to pay for college. I could just be free to do whatever I want at Merrimack and not worry about the financial side of it.”