Merrimack College’s Early College Program not only gives students such as Yameily Villaronga ’25 the opportunity to pursue a college degree, but she also represents what is possible to her family and community.
“When I went home and I talked about pursuing my master’s degree and my career choices, it really inspired my family,” said Villaronga, who is studying political science at Merrimack. “My mom went back to school and now she’s finishing her associate’s degree, and my younger sister said she’s concentrating on going to school too. They thought if I could do it, they could do it.”
Villaronga was joined by other current and former students of the Early College Program at an event on Merrimack’s campus on Oct. 24, where they discussed with local and state officials the impact the program has had.
“My goal is to try to make sure the opportunities that I didn’t have, you guys get,” state Sen. Pavel Payano, D-Lawrence, told students during the visit. “And that our school systems improve so people like you and people who come after you have easier access to pursue the American dream.”
The Merrimack Early College Program, launched in 2017, provides high-achieving Lawrence High School students an opportunity to enroll in college-level courses on campus at no charge. Students from Lawrence High’s 11th and 12th grade Upper School Academy and Abbott Lawrence Academy, the accelerated honors high school within Lawrence High School’s campus, who complete the program are also eligible to become a Pioneer Scholar, giving them a full scholarship to Merrimack.
Carlos Reyes ’23, a former Early College student, graduated from Merrimack College last year as a Pioneer Scholar. He said if it weren’t for the program, he would not have made the connections he needed to get to where he is today.
“I feel like the Early College Program has shaped my entire life,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the Early College Program I probably wouldn’t have gone to college and it’s not because I didn’t want to go – it was for financial reasons. It would be almost or near impossible to (attend).”
During the open house, Payano, State Rep. Francisco Paulino, D-Methuen, and Lawrence Mayor Brian De Peña spoke with Early College students as they attended classes at Merrimack including Introduction to Psychology and a biology lab.
Afterward, the politicians and students met for a roundtable discussion at the Arcidi Center. Students were able to discuss what it meant to be part of the Merrimack community as well as insights on how to get more underserved Lawrence High School students a chance to enter college.
Paulino noted that low-income communities in Lawrence are insular with very few opportunities to network. In addition, leaving the Lawrence bubble can be a tough transition.
“When I started the Early College Program I was intimidated because I didn’t know how much support I was going to have,” said Sabrina Marte ’25, a Pioneer Scholar who also works for the Massachusetts Alliance for Early College. “(I come) from a family where nobody went to college…(As a Pioneer Scholar) I really feel that there’s a support system behind me and it feels really nice to know that I’m not the only one rooting for me.”