When the College of Staten Island’s Office of Student Affairs put their grant proposal together for the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, as part of the organization’s Bold Solutions for Re-Engagement campaign, they knew they would be tasked to introduce new and innovative ideas to the campus and the Staten Island community. They succeeded, landing a historic $250K grant, the first of its kind, and part of $2M in grants to support 14 similar innovative projects, 11 of them within The City University of New York. As the Fall ‘23 semester approaches, the team is welcoming its first student cohort to campus and preparing for the work ahead.

CSI answered the charge from the Petrie Foundation, who together with the Heckscher Foundation for Children, put out a call for new and original ideas that would target 18-22 year-olds who had, for some reason or another, stopped out of college and the pursuit of a degree. Over 80 proposals were submitted in total. It got Danielle Dimitrov, CSI’s Dean of Students, and Lisa Korchma, Student Affairs’ Executive Associate, asking themselves how to engage with this cohort of students, not just at CSI but all over Staten Island.

“Loss of employment and income, rising food insecurity, and lack of medical access dramatically change lives,” commented Korchma. “Our office witnessed first-hand this detrimental impact on the College’s most vulnerable student populations. So many young people delayed or abandoned their plans in higher education because of it. The College has such a wonderful partnership with the Petrie Foundation, as they have been instrumental in providing assistance to our students, and it prompted us to think about an approach for re-engagement support through this initiative.”

The result, and the subsequent grant proposal, called for a “triad approach” for re-engagement. The College would install a Dedicated Readmissions Team, or “Re-entry Team” located on CSI’s campus, adding a dedicated social worker, and a partnership with community organizations to help identify, assist, and re-matriculate young adults to college. Coursework is introduced to help students prepare for college, and community programs like the Eden II Program and the YouthBuild IMPACT Program on Staten Island would help reach student cohorts, who then engage with social work to help provide wraparound services that support troubled students in need with a return to the classroom and gainful employment.

CSI’s Bold Solutions for Re-Engagement initiative, now entitled Yes-Together, presented an 18-month program that Dimitrov and Korchma not only hope will matriculate students who have stopped out of college and return them to the classroom, but give them the assessment tools they need to help identify and prevent stoppages in the future. Since that time, they have added staffers Stephanie Echevarrieta as a Transformation Coach and Franki Scordato as the program’s new Success Coordinator.

The Yes-Together program hopes that reaching students and being able to learn and identify the cause of their stoppages, can introduce new and innovative ways to problem-solve and provide preventative care for at-risk students who may be struggling academically, financially, and with their overall mental health, something exacerbated by the COVID-pandemic. The team has already built an impressive cohort of nearly 100 students who have aligned with the program and made use of its services.

The re-engagement strategy doesn’t just support students who have opted out of further study. Partnering with colleagues like Eden II’s Director of Human Resources William Myhre and YouthBuild IMPACT Director Elizabeth Morgan, helps those agencies create jobs and internships dedicated toward re-engagement initiatives.

“Elizabeth Morgan and I are two professionals from well-established community organizations with proven, successful track records doing this work,” said Myhre. “We are committed to helping young adults within our community achieve meaningful personal and professional success, while striving for growth and improvement in our own lives. We all must continue to travel this path forward together, and we are very proud to continue our partnership with the College of Staten Island for the Yes-Together initiative.” 

Yes-Together now hopes to broaden the horizon and scope of service to these cohorts of students, helping to meet them where they already are. The team has been hard at work getting the program off of the ground, continuously working to develop new processes and protocols unique to this demographic of prospective students to ensure they are delivering the support and service to best serve their needs.

Echevarrieta, who has over two decades of experience in non-profit organizations, recently joined the team after working as a Parent Coordinator at the YMCA, working with elementary and middle school students in their afterschool programs, and at the Maximus Back to Work Program, where she assisted young adults in obtaining employment and vocational training. At the Central Family Life Center, Echevarrieta was the Career Developer for YouthBuild IMPACT where she assisted young adults with obtaining employment opportunities once they had completed their GED and vocational training. Now as the Yes-Together’s Transformation Coach, she been actively connecting with candidates, connecting with community-based organizations to build alliances, and has already begun supporting the cohort of entering students.

“Building the program from the ground up has been a challenging but rewarding experience, giving me a chance to get creative with our marketing materials, meeting many CBOs, and developing collaborative ideas,” said Echevarrieta. “We’ve been interacting with some students that have had the system fail them, so it can be a slow process, but we take great pride in gaining a student’s trust, so they take that leap of faith to give college a try. I cannot wait to celebrate all their accomplishments and achievements and watch the program grow. Working closely with these young people has been such a wonderful experience, and now I get to continue this work at CSI through this generous Bold Solutions grant.”

Scordato, the team’s new Success Coordinator, worked with Echevarrieta at The Central Family Life Center – YouthBuild IMPACT, working closely with youths seeking to gain their High School Equivalency diplomas, also connecting students with needed community resources to ensure their home environments were conducive to their success, as well as providing counseling to students. After earning her license in social work, she worked at The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, providing therapy to people of all age groups.  Since coming about at Yes-Together, Scordato has been attending community events and workforce fairs such as the Charleston Library Career Fair, Fatherhood Fun Day, and the NYPD Community Fairs Festival, to spread the message of what the program intends to do, and is working on more events in August to help introduce the program to more candidates.

“When I heard about Yes-Together, I knew this was a place where I would be able to provide the best support possible to individuals so they could thrive. We have been working to put out our name to the public all summer,” said Scordato. “They say that Staten Island can be the ‘forgotten borough’ and living here most of my life it does seem as if the majority of any programs or helpful resources offered to young people are not offered on the Island, and it leaves many young people without the needed assistance, guidance, or resources. We aim to provide the needed support and resources that many young Staten Islanders are looking for and that need guidance through what can be a confusing system in higher education, as well as ensuring that they have all the resources they need to thrive both in school and outside. In the years to come, I am hoping to have higher rates of enrollment, retention, and graduations of Staten Island’s young people, particularly among those who are feeling alone and forgotten.”

Despite the incredible work that has been done to this point, preparing and writing the grant, bringing in creative partners, and laying the introductory pieces into place, the team knows the best and most rewarding work is yet to come, and they’re excited about what the future of Yes-Together holds, not just for the College but for the Borough.

“My sincerest hope is that this initiative offers an accessible pathway to help young Staten Island adults recognize their own educational and professional potential,” said Korchma. “The pandemic worsened young people’s perceptions of the workplace, career growth, and the value of a college degree or certification. Our partnership is based on the idea that the path is not linear; rather, they have the opportunity to find meaningful and supportive employment while simultaneously pursuing further training and education, which in turn, creates further career growth and networking connections.”

To connect with the Yes-Together program and to learn more, visit the group’s Instagram Page at @csi_yestogether or scan the QR Code below: