First Pioneer Scholars cohort graduate Merrimack College

The program has issued full scholarships to 10 Lawrence High School students each year since 2019.
Photo of the ten inaugural Pioneer Scholars posing with plaques commemorating their scholarship.
The ten inaugural Pioneer Scholars celebrated receiving their scholarships back in 2019.

When Stacey Ciprich, principal of Abbott Lawrence Academy, thinks of her former students preparing to graduate from Merrimack College this May, she gets a bit emotional.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real,” she said. “When I think of them sometimes I still think of them as those 14-year-olds or from when they last left me as 18-year-olds.”

The former students she is referring to are the first cohort of Merrimack’s Pioneer Scholars. Founded in 2019, the program awards full scholarships to 10 students at Abbott Lawrence Academy, the accelerated honors high school within Lawrence High School’s campus, who completed Merrimack’s Early College Program.

Pioneer Scholars also have access to a network of advisors to help them reach their full potential at Merrimack. So far, 46 scholarships have been awarded.

The 10 inaugural Pioneer Scholars are Omara Acosta ’23, Julissa Bejar ’23, Ilaisa Garcia ’23, Kyannah Hernandez ’23, Patrick Hurley ’23, Freddy Monroy ’23, Carlos Reyes ’23, Samantha Rich ’23, Helen Vasquez ’23 and Dianelys Difo ’22.

“What is most amazing to me is that when I am out recruiting our middle school students (for Abbott Lawrence Academy), I have fifth graders telling me they want to go to Merrimack,” said Ciprich. “That’s how you start a movement – (it’s) because these 10 Pioneer Scholars started it all.”

When he first arrived at Merrimack, Monroy said he wanted to make the most of his time on campus. He will soon receive his undergraduate degree in mathematics and education with a concentration in secondary education and a minor in psychology.

“All the professors I’ve had I’ve loved,” he said. “The math professors know me by name. They really focus on growth mindset – they normalize how hard math is even for math people. The education department professors are always caring and they make sure to check in with the students.”

In addition to his studies, Monroy served on the Student Government Association for all four years, worked on the Orientation committee and spent time as an admissions ambassador.

His go-getter attitude was apparent even at Abbott, Ciprich recalled.

“We have traditions here at our school that were started because Freddy was a part of them,” she said. “He’s now going to do that at such a higher level and help make that possible for other kids.”

Now that his time at Merrimack is coming to an end, Monroy has his eyes set on graduate school and eventually plans to pursue a career in higher education.

“(The Pioneer Scholars advisors) have helped me look at different schools and the Merrimack College program,” he said. “They’ve helped me with the application process since no one in my family has ever applied to graduate school.”

Meredith Fitzsimmons, assistant dean of student advising and services in the Winston School of Education and Social Policy, has worked with the 10 inaugural Pioneer Scholars since they enrolled in Merrimack’s Early College Program in 2017.

“Just watching them meet goal after goal that they’ve set for themselves has been really rewarding,” she said. “This group has always seen themselves as leaders. They’ve been willing to jump in, try new things and be the first class to put themselves out there again and again. It shows their strength and resilience.”

Carlos Reyes said he discovered his love for biology through the Early College Program. Thanks to the Pioneers Scholars program, he’ll be able to pursue his dream of becoming a dentist serving underprivileged communities.

“Before getting that scholarship I felt that college was a reach for me because I come from a low-income family,” he said. “It would have been very hard for me to afford college.”

Ultimately, Merrimack was the perfect fit for Reyes’ life in and out of the classroom.

“Merrimack is close to home” in Lawrence, Carlos explained. “Living in my household, it was just my mom and I. (The College) is far from home to an extent but close enough for me to check up on her and basically be around with my family as much as possible.”

Sam Rich is already in the workforce despite being days away from receiving her undergraduate degree in criminology with a minor in psychology. She is currently a victim witness advocate at the Middlesex County Superior Court.

“They’re saying they like me here, that I bring a light to the office,” she said. “I think working in the courthouse is perfect for me because I’m a people person. People who come to the courthouse, they’re not having a really good time – they’re not there for a fun reason – so I like to be the smiling face or someone to help.”

Rich said she “worked her butt off” to prove she deserved her spot at Merrimack. Her hard work paid off – despite a full class load and working off-campus 20 to 30 hours a week, she made the President’s List all four years.

“It was probably the best thing to ever happen to me in my life,” said Rich of her Pioneer Scholars scholarship. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford community college (tuition). I hope this (program) keeps going forever. I think it’s a beautiful thing. It also motivates freshmen in high school to do better so they can get that scholarship. I think it creates a well-rounded individual.”

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