By Tom Stoelker, Senior Staff Writer and Visual Media Coordinator, Fordham University


Click on the video above to hear from the high school Scholars who participated in this summer’s Bronx History Makers program (video produced by Fordham University)

First there was redlining, then there were the fires, and now, inevitably, there’s gentrification. But there was also bebop, salsa and hip-hop. And today, the borough serves up cuisine from Italy, Albania, the Caribbean and Ghana. The Bronx has seen it all. Yet too frequently, it’s been the fires and the poverty that have grabbed headlines, rather than the borough’s rich culture.

This summer, a group of Bronx high school students, mentored by four Fordham University undergraduates, sought to challenge negative stereotypes of their home borough through research, and showed their findings to the local community via Zoom as the culmination of the annual Bronx History Makers program: an immersive college-prep experience that began in 2005.

The program normally runs for six weeks, with the high school students (known as scholars) living on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was conducted virtually this year, with two weeks of preparation for the undergraduate mentors and two weeks of research with the scholars.

Supported by an annual grant of $50,000 from the Teagle Foundation, Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) worked in partnership with BronxWorks, a nonprofit community organization, to recruit the scholars and the Fordham undergraduate mentors. They also brought in faculty advisers and a group of experts on the borough, who provided academic and professional guidance.

Mentoring from a Place of Vulnerability
Lisa M. Ingravera, assistant director for administration and academic development at Fordham’s CCEL, said that while the primary focus of the program was to help the high school scholars acclimate to college life, the first two weeks were devoted to the mentors.

“We needed the mentors to speak to the teens in a way that made college feel manageable. That first week created a lot of teamwork because we explored what it’s like to be in high school. I told them, ‘I need you to go back in time and recall what that support looked like for you before going to college,’” said Ingravera, adding that the exercise became rather emotional for both the mentors and the scholars.

Mentor Fariha Fawziah, a sophomore at Fordham College at Rose Hill, said that the group’s vulnerabilities provided a foundation for the close relationships they built with each other. “In that first week, we were sharing our roots, our families and cultural values. Without that, we would not have had this connection,” said Fawziah.

Gabelli School of Business junior, Geraldo De La Cruz, said that he and his fellow mentors became each other’s “guardian angels.” He added that the first two weeks of getting acquainted with each other and the material were crucial to their bonding. “Any time that one of us needed an affirmation that they were doing a great job, we would do that for each other,” said De La Cruz.

Mentor Emily Romero, a Fordham College at Rose Hill junior, said that working as a team was key. “If I’m not an expert in one subject, someone else could be,” she explained, “and we just tried to combine all of that together for the scholars.”

Examining Entrenched Issues
The four groups of high school scholars examined past and present issues facing the Bronx, including redlining, racial inequities, community policing and gentrification. The mentors taught the scholars about the history of these topics and supported them as they conducted further research and learned how to perform a typical college assignment (e.g. reading dozens of articles and academic papers) in preparation for the presentation on July 23.

One of the four presentations was titled, “The Replacers,” and focused on gentrification. Although the scholars could make use of interviews, lectures, news articles and historic images in their research, the city-wide quarantine limited who the students could reach out to for more in-person information. So, many of them spoke to their family members instead.

Scholar Harley Lopez, a junior at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, interviewed her grandmother, a longtime New York City resident, who spoke emotionally about having to move from Brooklyn to the Bronx because of increased housing costs. The student scholars said that this particular interview helped them relate to how neighborhood bonds can be severed by rising rents.

Lopez explained that the research project—and the history she learned—made her understand the importance of local narratives and the disproportionate influence that the media can have on perceptions. “We live in the Bronx, we grew up here, but we have all of these outside influences that even affect how we see ourselves,” she said. “We deconstructed the phrase ‘Black-on-Black crime.’ This kind of phrase that is used in the media makes us think that we pose more of a danger to ourselves than the system does.”

The mentors—who are Bronxites themselves—said they were struck by how fluent the scholars were with the material. “They were so aware of current social issues, activism and protests,” said mentor Benita Campos, a Fordham College at Rose Hill senior. “They were so passionate to make change.”

This article is adapted from a story that originally appeared on Fordham University’s website in August 2020; click here to view it online.