$14K Funding To Help Hartford Public Library Support College-Bound Immigrant Women

The Hartford Public Library, CT, recently received a $14,000 grant from the Aurora Foundation for Women and Girls toward a new program, Barriers Can’t Stop Us: Building Immigrant Women’s Success. The program will help 30 young women who immigrated to the United States while they were in high school access the resources they need to stay in school and complete their college degrees. The program is open to cisgender and transgender women alike.

two young women with arms around each other, one in red dress and one in graduation cap and gown
Apolina Jerome and Samantha Fonseca at Samatha's graduation
Photo by Michele Brophy

The Hartford Public Library (HPL), CT, recently received a $14,000 grant from the Aurora Foundation for Women and Girls toward a new program, Barriers Can’t Stop Us: Building Immigrant Women’s Success. The program will help 30 young women who immigrated to the United States while they were in high school access the resources they need to stay in school and complete their college degrees. The program is open to cisgender and transgender women alike.

The program’s main goals are to reduce the financial, academic, and social barriers for participants getting a post-secondary degree; to provide support as they navigate a new and unfamiliar academic environment; and to foster connections, through a peer mentorship system, to help ease social isolation.

Barriers Can’t Stop Us is an offshoot of the English Learner Success program, a division of HPL’s The American Place. Launched in 2017 through an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant in partnership with Hartford Public Schools, English Learner Success is open to immigrant and refugee teens of all genders who are new arrivals to the United States. Participants have come from Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Togo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, and Thailand; members of this year’s cohort represent 14 countries and speak six languages. Some have green cards; others are undocumented.

Fifty students from grades nine through 12 visit HPL after school each week and during the summer to work on their English language proficiency—some taking two buses from school to the library. The program also offers support for graduating seniors through job training and college planning. Perhaps its most important aim, said HPL Instructional Specialist Michele Maccarone Brophy, the program coordinator, is “creating that sense of belonging and building a community of mutual support.”

room of high school students seated around long tables working with tutors
Group tutoring session at Hartford Public Library
Photo by Michele Brophy

Support for college-bound students isn’t limited to the young women participating in the Barriers Can’t Stop Us program; Brophy has been offering Hartford’s immigrant teens hands-on help as they move on to post-secondary education since she arrived at the library four years ago. Many face the same issues: Most are still learning English while filling out school applications and financial aid forms that are almost entirely in English, and—particularly for those who are the first in their families to attend college—the culture of American higher education is new to them.

But the young women among them often encounter further unique challenges. Many have responsibilities at home that include caring for siblings, or are the main support for parents learning a new language and culture. “They translate for the parents in terms of medical, legal, financial, paying the rent, or figuring everything out—they have that role within the family,” said Brophy. When public schools opened in mid-August, she said, one of her college students showed up late to class because she was getting her three younger brothers ready for their first day of school. Many are still living at home while attending college, she noted, and “they're still expected to do the things they were doing before to support the family.”

The Aurora Foundation partners with local organizations to help women and girls in the Greater Hartford area make positive changes in their lives through research, community conversation, education, and grantmaking. When the opportunity arose to apply for one of the foundation’s 2022 college completion program grants, “It just seemed like a perfect fit,” Brophy said; it would offer HPL a chance to expand the afterschool program’s capacity to serve first-year college students, building in extra support explicitly for young women graduates.

Before coming to HPL, Brophy worked for 30 years running pre-college and academic support programs for first-generation students at the University of St. Joseph, an all-women’s college in West Hartford. “I knew, already, the importance of helping them to transition to higher ed,” she told LJ, “but also I knew firsthand many of the challenges they were going to face, not just academically but also socially and financially. I knew where some of the pitfalls were, and some of the dangers, and where we would have to build in some extra supports.”

HPL Program Coordinator Erna Alic—a refugee from Bosnia as a child, former English learner, and graduate of the Hartford Public Schools and the University of Connecticut—provided input into the Barriers Can’t Stop Us grant application, including coming up with the program’s title.



All graduating senior girls participating in English Learner Success were eligible to be part of Barriers Can’t Stop Us, which launched in August. All were enrolled at Connecticut schools, at both community colleges and four-year institutions.

The period between high school graduation and the beginning of the academic year is a particularly critical time for support. “Students will graduate, they're accepted, but getting from point A to point B there's a lot of things that can fall apart,” noted Brophy—who followed through with each graduate individually throughout the summer to support them through a variety of requirements, such as new student orientation, providing medical and vaccination records, placement testing, and course registration. Financial aid forms can be particularly challenging. Students who are U.S. citizens or have green cards can apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), while undocumented students who have been in the country for at least two years use the Aid Application for CT Undocumented Students (AACTUS); all require navigating a system—from providing financial documentation to getting signatures notarized—where instructions are often largely in English.

It’s complicated series of hoops to jump through for any first-year student, she said, but “for someone who's the first in their family to go through that, and who may not speak very strong English yet, it's quite a daunting process. So, throughout the summer, we were in touch with them. Last week, I met with almost each of them. Either we were texting or calling or Zooming or in person, just to make sure everybody was all set” for the first week of school.

Brophy will continue to check in with them regularly during the academic year. In addition, each young woman is matched with a College Peer Mentor at her respective institution—a sophomore, junior, or senior who completed HPL’s English Learner Success program—to offer academic and social support. As Brophy pointed out, five years of the library’s high school program have produced a sizeable cohort of local students with demonstrated leadership skills who are eager to provide advice about higher education and navigating individual schools. The Aurora Foundation grant provides a stipend for Peer Mentors at the end of the semester, and they will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the program.

Brophy will also match students with tutors if they wish. (If a student were to attend an out-of-state school in the future, Brophy feels that she could accommodate them through remote check-ins but might need to forego setting up a peer mentorship.)



Students like Apolina Jerome, who came with her family from Tanzania in 2015, have benefited greatly from the library’s support. Jerome took part in the English Learner Success program from 2016 to 2020, where she worked on her English, received homework help, and eventually applied—and was admitted to—Capital Community College.

“Applying for college, the steps were complicated since I didn’t know much English,” Jerome told LJ. “It took a few weeks to finish everything.” Help from Brophy and the team at HPL was critical, Jerome said—her parents don’t speak English, and weren’t able to help her beyond supplying the needed tax documents.

Jerome is in her second year at Capital, majoring in science, and hopes to become a doctor. She still takes advantage of the tutoring offered by HPL, and has become close with one volunteer, Carolyn Dorais; the two have visited a local museum and discuss books on their own time. Her takeaway from HPL goes beyond academic improvement and English proficiency, however. Jerome has become a Peer Mentor through Achieve Hartford’s All IN! Coalition, and has a caseload of 34 mentees—including two women from Barriers Can’t Stop Us. “Once a week I check on the student,” she explained—“how they’re doing, if they have any questions about college, doubts, concerns, anything. If they need help with Blackboard, credits for class, where to find the financial aid office.”

Her mentees are doing great, Jerome said, as is she. Her advice to young Hartford immigrants: “Go to the library so they can improve their English and be confident to speak to other students, meet other students and make friends and work hard.”

Brophy is close with all the English Learner Success and Barriers Can’t Stop Us participants, and hopes to get the college students together for a pizza party next January or March during school break. She is closely involved with every one of them, and deeply invested in their success. “These young people, they blow my mind—how motivated, how eager to learn, how hard working they are,” she told LJ. Support from the library has been critical as well, she added. “Hartford Public Library has a real mission to serve the community, and they live that out. It's not just lip service.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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