ITHACA, NY [12/21/10] _ Nestled on the banks of Cayuga Lake in Central New York, the college town of Ithaca is about as far away from Cambridge as Courtney Johnson can get.
Like so many of her classmates, she is still adjusting to the limits of living in a true college town, an island unto itself in the middle of upstate New York’s sea of farms and fields and mountains, she is still learning how to cope with the pressures and rigors of Cornell University’s demanding academic culture.
"Cornell is very different from Boston," she says. "For one thing, the campus is huge. It's also in the middle of nowhere, which is rough to get used to, especially since I grew up in Cambridge."
But such adjustments have not deterred her from enjoying all that college life offers, nor have they prevented her from succeeding in her pursuit of a degree in psychology from one of America’s great universities.
And that is because even though she may be more than 360 miles from Kendall Square, Courtney Johnson is still connected to her alma mater. Former teachers check in on her via phone calls, their familiar voices alone boosting her confidence, offering her a sounding board. One-time mentors send e-mails and text messages of continued support. Combined, the calls and messages remind her that while she may have graduated from Community Charter School of Cambridge almost three years ago now, Courtney is, and always will be, part of the CCSC community.
“I still get choked up when I think about Courtney giving her valedictory speech at CCSC's graduation,” says Emma Stellman, associate principal of the Lower School. “I am extremely proud of her achievements, excited for her future, and grateful that she will serve as a role model to CCSC students.”
For her part, Courtney has been surprised to discover that many of her college classmates do not keep in touch with their high school teachers. She is even more surprised to learn that friends from the Cambridge neighborhood she grew up in did not have experiences similar to hers at their high school.
“They did not have any teachers rooting for their success and pushing them to do their work,” she says. “As a result, they did not do their homework and did not get into the schools they wanted to go to. “
Ms. Stellman, for example, took time from her duties as associate principal, to help Courtney prepare for and ultimately select which colleges to apply to. She recalls fondly a 600-mile road trip she and several students, including Courtney, made to visit the campus of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
“Courtney has incredible attention to detail. She is a problem-solver and she is fiercely dedicated to learning and growing intellectually,” Ms. Stellman says. “In addition to her intellect, Courtney's just a really great person. She's funny, sensitive, passionate, and down-to-earth.”
Ms. Stellman’s relationship with Courtney is the norm, not the exception, to the CCSC mantra – a mandate really – that teachers will know every student and know them well.
“They all altered me as a student or person in some way,” Courtney says. “Through networking, I got amazing references for college, which, I believe, was partially responsible for my acceptance here at Cornell. They have also helped in courses through emails and have given me life advice. “
The connections to staff and the continued support, Courtney admits, are almost more valuable than the education and the diploma she received from CCSC. In addition to Ms. Stellman, Courtney stays in contact with and draws support from more than a dozen former teachers, including Caleb Hurst-Hiller, Marc Parris, Amy Daniels, Lisa Smith, Karsten Cash, Daniel Saltzman, Paula Evans, Nadira Hairston, Aleida Sanabria and Tabitha Schober, all of whom worked hard to help Courtney achieve her goals.
“Seeing Courtney excel, from a personal perspective, is very affirming,” says Mr. Saltzman. “That's pretty important but pales by comparison to the joy of seeing Courtney mature into someone who will make a difference, in such a strong way, and be successful in whatever she does. She inspires me to keep reaching higher.”
Mr. Cash describes Courtney as a very intense student who knew early on in her high school career that academics would be the key to unlocking college admissions doors for her.
“Rarely will you ever see a teenager as driven and goal-oriented as Courtney,” says Mr. Cash. “She and I would often talk about everything from coursework, to sports, and college. I’m very proud of her. She’s become a role model to all of our current students who see her, know her, and understand what she represents.”
Courtney has relied on the time management and study skills she developed at CCSC to help her juggle a full course load. Thus far, her studies have included courses in psychology, chemistry, statistics, calculus, writing, philosophy and two languages.
“My classes have been tough. It is definitely harder than CCSC,” she says. “However, the classes are manageable because of the workload I was given at CCSC. I think that if I had not attended CCSC, I would not have been able to handle the course load.”
“I definitely do not think I would be in the Ivy-League, that’s for sure,” she says.
And so, when on those rare occasions she finds herself a bit overwhelmed by a research paper or mid-terms or final exams, and yearns to bolt back east over the Catskill Mountains, to cross the Connecticut River, and head for home, Courtney knows she can quell such fears with a phone call or an email to a circle of supporters at CCSC who have been and always will be there for her.