Published February 21, 2022

A gift from a Rutgers-Newark alumnus will help the Honors Living Learning Community become a national model.

Sandy Jaffe was not considered an honors student when he attended Newark’s Weequahic High School more than 70 years ago.

The son of working class Eastern European immigrants, he preferred comic books to homework and graduated in the bottom quarter of his class. But he thrived at Rutgers-Newark, where like many classmates, he attended night school and worked a day job to help support his family. He went on to complete Harvard Law School and, along with Linda Stamato, founded Rutgers’ Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.

“I was what they call a late learner,’’ Jaffe recalls.

When he and Stamato wanted to invest in a program that values potential and life experience over GPAs, they chose Rutgers-Newark Honors Living Learning Community (HLLC). Both funded the creation of a research fellowship that could help the successful program be replicated on a national scale.

Jaffe sees himself in HLLC students. Like him, more than half are from the city and many are children of immigrants who weren’t always ready for success in their teens and might not have earned the best  grades. They have high aspirations – and share a passion for building a better world – but they’re often low on resources.

“I couldn’t afford to go to college and I couldn’t have gotten in anyway,’’ admits Jaffe. “At Rutgers-Newark back then, all that was required was to fill out an application and show up. Having the chance to go to school at night nearby enabled me to begin the process of learning how to learn.’’

Unlike many honors programs, the HLLC  eliminates standardized test scores from the admissions process, instead considering qualities like resilience and a student’s drive to create a more equitable world – often with a focus on their own community. Founded in 2015, the HLLC, currently has 480 students enrolled and 169 students have completed the program since it began, with more than half graduating with honors. Most found jobs in their field or went on to graduate or professional school.

Tim Eatman, dean of the Honors Living and Learning Community, describes a rigorous academic program where students minor in social justice and draw from first-hand knowledge to solve local and global problems.

“We’re thinking about what it means to create the next generation of thought leaders who are not only at the pinnacle of excellence and learning but are engaging in the world,’’ says Eatman, an educational sociologist. “It requires that they have civic knowledge, it means understanding the shifts in democracy.’’

He adds, “Our students are involved in churches, mosques and places of civic engagement. Many are also taking care of parents and translating for non-English speakers. They are deserving of educational opportunities that tap into their genius.’’

Although Stamato, a graduate of Douglass, Rutgers and New York University, followed a more traditional path to college and academia, like Eatman, she believes conventional standards of merit must change. “I think honors students should be chosen based on grit and promise, not solely on academic standing or test scores,’’ says Stamato, whose family was from Newark and still feels connected to the city, where she visited often as a girl.

She and Jaffe founded the Center for Conflict Resolution at Rutgers-Newark in 1986, and began teaching at the law school. The Center later moved to the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick, where Stamato and Jaffe are now policy fellows.

At the HLLC, an intergenerational group of students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, live together and receive intensive support to succeed, often amid the responsibilities of working and caring for family. The program helps acclimate them to college life and hone skills to become top scholars. Housed in a new state-of-the art learning and residential facility, the HLLC  spans nearly a block on New Street in downtown Newark.

“Right now, I have a 60-year-old and a 17-year-old in the same cohort  living and learning together,’’ says Eatman. “There are students who have aged out of foster care, students who are veterans, students who have been impacted with respect to incarceration.’’

Eatman is deeply appreciative of Jaffe and Stamato’s gift to support research that could help create similar programs nationwide.

“One of the reasons the gift is so beautiful is that it recognizes we are more alike than we are different,” he says. “What Linda and Sandy recognize is that, you know what, I’m special but no more special than any of these kids, and I have a responsibility to share the blessings I’ve been able to realize, as challenging as it may have been in my life. It’s an acknowledgement of the privilege they’ve had over and against the challenges that the students have.’’

The generosity of  Jaffe and Stamato is both poignant and reaffirming, says Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

“Their gift makes a powerful statement not only because it comes from two professionals who want to leave a legacy reflecting their expertise and values as career educators, but because they see themselves in our HLLC students, who represent the talent waiting to be cultivated in Newark,’’ Cantor says. “They know from their lived experience what is possible for the diverse new generations of students—that opportunity is all that stands between them and their dreams.”

Story originally appeared in Rutgers University-Newark News.


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