Fontaine Chambers is about to start the next step of her journey toward a career in criminal justice. But first she’s taking a bow.
Chambers is slated to speak to 1,000 or more celebrants gathered Thursday night at Southern Connecticut State University’s Lyman Hall to bid hundreds of public school graduates off to their first year of college with the help of the New Haven Promise program.
Chambers will receive Promise’s “Legacy” award. A first-generation college student, she’s also a first-generation success story, Exhibit A for why the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital have poured millions of dollars since 2011 into guaranteeing successful high school students that they can afford to attend college.
New Haven Promise paid 50 percent of the tab for Chambers’ tuition at University of Connecticut, where she majored in political science and minored in criminal justice. That enabled her to afford the tuition without sinking deeply into debt.
Now fully phased in, Promise offers 100 percent four-year tuition to New Haveners who attended public schools for 12 years and maintained a 3.0 high school GPA, then maintain a 2.0 college GPA. Over 200 New Haven 2016 high school graduates are about to begin freshman year at a public college or university in Connecticut with full Promise scholarships, according to Promise Executive Director Patricia Melton. Others, who attend out-of-state schools, will be able to obtain summer internships in New Haven that pay $3,500 to $4,500. A total of 307 students qualified for the latest round of “Promise” help, which includes “passport” mini-scholarships to help students who just missed the 3.0 GPA cut-off to get started on college careers in the hopes of eventually qualifying for the full support (which many do).
The daughter of a health aide and facilities worker then living in the Brookside public-housing development, Chambers, the youngest of four children, is the first in her family to attend college. She had her sights on college since attended a UConn “Gear Up” program after her 8th grade graduation from Edgewood School. Her parents encouraged her. They saw she was driven, she said during a pre-event interview Thursday on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
“I thought, ‘I can do this,’” she recalled.
In high school at Wilbur Cross, Chambers developed a commitment to making the criminal justice system more just — and more diverse. She resolved to become an attorney.
She didn’t do well on her SATs, but her good grades got her into UConn. At UConn she tutored and mentored at-risk kids while earning a 3.7 GPA. She said she’s evidence that people who don’t shine on standardized tests can still succeed in college — “as long as you have the drive, the work ethic.”
Part of the time in college she studied abroad in London, and blogged on her experiences for the Promise organization. Back home, she checked back with the organization and helped inspire other young people to pursue college careers.
This summer Chambers interned with defense attorney Jonathan Einhorn. Watching Einhorn argue a case in federal court, she was struck by the improtance of “relationships”—with judges, with prosecutors. She was also struck by the complexion of the jury, the judge, the prosectuors: Everyone was white. It renewed her determination to become a lawyer herself.
“I want to change minorities’ percpetions of the criminal justice system,” she said, “and be a voice of hope.”
To get there, Chambers is about to assume a double load this fall. She will begin a full-time job in the general liability unit at Travelers Insurance;s he looks forward to learning about contracts and litigation. She has also been accepted into UConn’s public administration masters program. It’s a dual-degree program; she is preparing to taker her LSATs in anticipation of applying to the law program.
But first she has an appointment Thursday night at Lyman Hall. To pause and reflect on how far she has come already.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full discussion with Melton and Chambers on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”