Editor’s note: The Olin Fleischer Scholars Program for high school students is a free, week-long residential program geared toward underrepresented and first-generation college student populations. The program is designed to expose students to the importance of a college education, leadership, and careers in business and entrepreneurship. The program was conceived and funded by Mort Fleischer (BSBA’58).
It was an ordinary Thursday in my small Missouri town when my life changed forever. I had received a notification from my Washington University application portal that the status of my application had changed. The notification instructed me to check the portal immediately to review the status update. My head shot up towards my sister, who was sitting next to me in my bedroom, each of us nose-deep in our computers. I tried to read her the contents of the notification, but I was already worked up into an unintelligible hysteria. My sister read the email, dialed my mom’s work number on speaker, and relayed to her the situation. My mom spoke calmly, unable to hide the anxiousness that layered her own voice.
“Open the portal Lex,” she encouraged. “I believe in you, always.”
I gripped my sister with one hand and clicked the application portal with the other. My eyes lit up when I saw the words awaiting me on the screen.
“CONGRATULATIONS!! Welcome to the WashU class of 2020, Lexi!”
Two years later, I can still remember the rush of this moment. Each day as I walk the campus of Washington University, all the joy, pain, sleeplessness, worry, and courage of the journey I took to reach this school floods the back of my mind. It produces a sentimental feeling of thankfulness and pride that motivates me to make the most of my time at this university, honoring my small-town roots and the unlikely path I took to get here. You won’t hear of too many students like me: a student from a single-income household, daughter of a father with physical disabilities, resident of 15,000-person town, graduate from a non-AP or IB high school. But yet, here I am.
Within these categories, and so many others, are underrepresented students who have an extraordinary potential to succeed at a university like WashU, but are missing either the moral support, academic resources, financial factors, or belief in self to feel as if they can attend college. The Olin Fleischer Scholars Program seeks to empower students in each of these areas with resources and support so that their dreams can be realized. As a 2017 volunteer mentor for the program’s inaugural year at WashU, I saw just how transformative the week was for the high school students that attended.
Lexi, second from right, with the group of scholars she advised for their final presentation.
Twenty-eight students from across the country arrived at Washington University on July 23rd for the Fleischer Scholars program. As students checked in for their room keys and information, I could already sense shyness, sadness, worry, and even heartbreak from some of the students. While they all appeared excited to experience this opportunity, there was no question that many of the students were escaping difficult backgrounds and circumstances during their week on campus.
During the first two days, the students were attentive to speakers and activities. Mr. Mort Fleischer, Olin alumnus and founder of the Fleischer Scholars Program, spoke to students and parents about the benefits of the program and the differences that the program has already made in participants’ lives. Mr. Chris Presley, BSBA academic advisor and director of the Fleischer Program at WashU, offered his opening remarks to parents before they departed on the first day, noting that their scholar may act completely different by the end of the week. It wasn’t until the second evening that I began noticing the change that Mr. Presley had discussed.
After a full day’s work of lectures, activities, projects, and company visits, the scholars would retire to the dorms for relaxation. It was here on the second evening that I began to see them open up to one another. They ran up and down the hallway, just as I had as an excited first-year student, and grouped up in circles to chat and play games. A few scholars surrounded the six mentors that sat in the hallway to keep some kind of order. Immediately, the scholars began asking questions about college, scholarships, and life without any hesitation. I could sense their genuine interest in our responses and their hope that they could secure money for their education and a university to call their own. It reminded me of my own hope that I held onto all throughout high school, despite my own circumstances.
Lexi and Olin Fleischer Scholars at a Cardinals Game.
Each day, the scholars increasingly shared more of their backgrounds and their hope for the future. They applied techniques that they learned in lectures and conversation, taking advantage of every tool they were given for success. One such instance made me particularly proud. Earlier that morning, a “friend-spert,” expert in networking and relationships, had visited and taught the scholars how to firmly shake hands with others and introduce themselves professionally. At lunch that day, visitors from a local company came to talk with the scholars. My sandwich almost fell out of my mouth when I saw how many scholars were lined up to shake hands and introduce themselves to the company visitors. Nothing could stop them because, in that moment, nothing else mattered—not their background, not their fear, not their circumstances. All that mattered was their own willingness to achieve.
There were countless other examples throughout the week of the scholars coming out of their shells and doing incredible things. Perhaps the most notable is each scholar’s performance at the final presentation on the last day. At the beginning of the week, the scholars had been divided into groups of strangers and tasked with creating a new product or service to solve a problem in their community. They were then asked to present it to a panel of accomplished area businesspeople. Initially, the task was daunting. The scholars didn’t quite know where to begin with a group of people they didn’t know. However, as they began to learn more about business and more about one another, their confidence levels grew immensely. The scholars began to assemble their presentations and practice their speaking parts. At the final presentation, each team of scholars presented ideas that were thoughtful, creative, and innovative in a manner that was articulate, confident, and well-rehearsed. Each mentor watched as the group they had advised completed their presentation, and we couldn’t help but feel a sense of immense pride in every scholar. As the scholars exited the presentation room to celebrate their success, the looks of sadness, shyness, and anxiousness that I had seen on check-in day were completely replaced with smiles of confidence and empowerment. This week had absolutely transformed each scholar and it was evident from the inside out.
Today, a few weeks after the conclusion of the Fleischer Scholars Program, I am thinking about each of the 28 scholars that attended the program. I am imagining each scholar, a few months from today, going about their normal Thursday afternoon routine. Their eyes suddenly light up as they receive a notification they weren’t expecting. As they see all their hard work, sleepless nights, and endless dedication materialized in one word—“Congratulations!”—I know they will think of the Fleischer program and the powerful role it played as they pursued their future dreams.
A look at the inaugural Olin Fleischer Scholars class. Click below to expand image. Photos by Sid Hastings and Jerry Naunheim, Jr.