Wyman Leadership Program Was Life-Changing for Union Teacher

When a teacher suggested Savannah “Sami” Martin apply for the Wyman leadership program, she and her family had reservations.

Martin did some research and agreed to give it a shot. That decision in seventh grade changed the entire trajectory of her life, she says.

Taking part in Wyman’s three- to four-week summer camps thrust her into situations that gave her the skills she needed to thrive. Her Wyman counselors walked with her through those turbulent teen years and remained by her side throughout her college career.

“I really would not be where I am without Wyman,” said Martin, who grew up in Washington and now is a fourth-grade teacher at Clark Vitt Elementary School. “I never would have thought I could go to college — no one in my family did. I never thought I was smart enough to go to college so far away.”

Through Wyman, Martin says she got the support and guidance she needed when she needed it.

“At 12, I was looking for a friend, and — bam! — they gave me that. When I was in high school, I wanted something more than the opportunities my parents had, maybe go to community college. Wyman said, ‘That’s not a bad option, but that’s not the only option that you have,’ ” Martin recalled.

Wyman counselors coached her through three rounds of SATs, assisted with applications to a variety of colleges and took her on a 10-day trip to tour about a dozen colleges in three states. It was a Wyman counselor who encouraged her to apply to Missouri State University — a move that put Martin on the path to the teaching career she now enjoys.

“I feel like she dropped magic into my lap when she dropped that application on me,” said Martin.

She was awarded a four-year, full-ride Wyman Scholarship to MSU, where she earned a bachelor’s in education.

“I think they really throw the world at you, and they really say it doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you put the effort in, there are people who will help you,” said Martin. “No matter how many times you get knocked down, reach out and we’ll help you.”

Earn Higher GPAs, Degrees Through Partnership

An innovative partnership between Wyman and Missouri State University provides first-generation college students from economically disadvantaged circumstances the skills, confidence, tenacity and support to earn higher grade-point averages and to secure degrees at rates exceeding national averages.

Wyman and MSU celebrated the 10th anniversary of their partnership this month by honoring the students, and recognizing the staff, investors and cross-institutional efforts that have supported their strong outcomes. The celebration was held on the university’s campus in Springfield.

MSU reports that 63 students from across the St. Louis region have attended the university in the past 10 years, with 83 percent either graduated or persisting to degree completion. The 22 students who have graduated to date with a bachelor’s degree have averaged just over 4.5 years to graduation.

The most recent analysis of national degree attainment rates by The Pell Institute shows only 26 percent of students from the lowest family income quartile attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher within five to six years of enrolling.

A recently published study on the progress of Wyman students at MSU showed that students who had participated in Wyman programming maintained higher GPAs and higher retention rates during their first year of enrollment at MSU than their peers.

The partnership was a natural extension of the mission and vision of both Wyman and the university.

Wyman, based in St. Louis, has worked for more than 120 years to empower teens from economically disadvantaged circumstances to lead successful lives and build strong communities. At the same time, MSU had established a mandate to foster and support the intellectual, social and cultural development of students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“We understand the critical importance of ensuring the retention and success of all who enter our university, especially our low-income, first-generation college students of color,” MSU President Clif Smart said. “They are the reason we entered into this partnership 10 years ago. And they are also the reason we are gathered to celebrate their academic achievements and those who work to make their success possible.”

The relationship begins when students enroll in Wyman’s leadership program during middle school. Engaging and empowering programs, along with caring adult supports, help students build life and leadership skills, make connections to others and their world, and develop a positive sense of self.

Through experiences such as multi-week leadership development at Wyman’s youth camp, community service learning, and college and career exposure, students identify their strengths, talents and interests, and explore aligned career and postsecondary paths. Students and their families receive coaching and support from Wyman and its community partners to navigate the college application, financial aid and selection process.

Coaching supports continue during the transition to and through college.

Through the partnership with MSU, Wyman students get to know the university through precollege tours and stays on campus, helping them to experience campus life and to identify the best settings suited to them. MSU also created an on-campus “Wyman Club,” designed to provide students with a supportive network of peers and upper-class students. Deep coordination between Wyman and a full-time MSU staff member dedicated to college access partnerships ensures students are supported by consistent, caring relationships and coordinated services once on campus.

“In order to ensure educational equity for all students — where outcomes are not predicted by race or economic circumstances — institutions must commit to working seamlessly to support students and eliminate barriers,” Wyman President and CEO Claire Wyneken said. “Wyman and Missouri State staff work in partnership on a daily basis, student-by-student, to ensure they are empowered to succeed on their higher education journeys.”

This powerful partnership was launched through the vision and generous support of Wyman Trustee David Morley and his wife, Cheryl. The Morleys, both retired and former Monsanto executives, understood the importance of educational equity. They provided financial support and led fundraising for a scholarship endowment fund.

Wyman’s contribution from the fund, paired with an MSU assembled financial aid and scholarship package, ensure that tuition, room and board are fully covered for two students annually. To date, 22 students have benefited from these scholarships.

“We know the development of key social emotional skills during childhood and adolescence, such as healthy relationships, effective communication and problem-solving, has a positive impact on academic and employment outcomes,” David Morley said. “The success of our students at Missouri State demonstrates this.”

Wyman, MSU and students themselves agree that the partnership has been highly impactful.

“We must be intentional about how we set students up for success. The transition to college can be very overwhelming and unfamiliar territory for many of our students,” said Danielle Washington, senior director of Wyman’s Postsecondary, Career and Leadership Programs. “A sense of belonging and connectedness is so critical for students. That begins for our students in middle and high school during Wyman’s leadership program, and continues on MSU’s campus where students have an advocate, a built-in peer support network and a greater connection to campus.”

By all accounts, the partnership, and most importantly the students it serves, is expected to continue flourishing. Andre, a Wyman student who will graduate from MSU in May, sums up his experience: “They showed me that college is a possibility. I’m not excluded because of any other circumstances I am in. I am capable, and I am able to do this.”

A record high 35 of 92 high school seniors in Wyman’s leadership program have applied to attend MSU in Fall 2019.

About Wyman

Wyman, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and proud member of the United Way, has been dedicated to serving youth from disadvantaged circumstances for more than a century. Wyman empowers teens, equips adults and strengthens systems. Wyman’s engaging, empowering and experiential programs and services help teens build skills, and develop a sense of self and connections to their world.

As a result, teens achieve educational success, develop healthy behaviors and relationships, and exhibit life and leadership skills. From thousands of teens in St. Louis — to tens of thousands nationally — Wyman programs and services make a difference in the lives of today’s teens and tomorrow’s leaders.