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Talia Clarke (contributed)

HARTFORD, CT — For Hartford Promise scholars across the country, this May was supposed to be special.

The class of 2020 is the first class of Hartford Promise scholars to graduate from college since the program began in 2016.

Hartford Promise is a scholarship program for graduates of Hartford Public Schools. It is also a network of mentors and partnerships seeking to increase the number of college-bound students in Hartford.

Richard Sugarman, the executive director of Hartford Promise, had hoped to make graduation special for the inaugural group of scholars, complete with a celebration at The Bushnell Theater and several smaller gatherings. The coronavirus put a damper on his plans.

“It would be a huge celebration of their accomplishments and this important moment,” Sugarman said. “We would have Promise scholars, guests, people from around the community to join in that celebration.”

Sugarman said he wanted to make the festivities a celebration for the Hartford community as a whole because of what these students have to offer.

“We now have the beginning of hundreds of new Promise scholars in Hartford, in Hartford communities, in Hartford families that weren’t there before, and frankly there haven’t been enough college graduates in Hartford leading up to this,” Sugarman said.

One of Hartford’s newest scholars is Talia Clarke, a soon-to-be graduate of Southern Connecticut State University. While Talia will receive her bachelor’s in public health, the celebration this year will be anticlimactic.

“Graduation was something that motivated me to keep going and make sure I was submitting my assignments early and meeting with my professors to make sure I get the most out of my college experience,” Clarke said. “With that not being the end goal, a celebration after four years of hard work, it’s tough. I kind of feel like, ‘What am I doing this for?’”

For Clarke, graduation was going to be a big day. Her whole family was planning to attend, including her grandmother from Jamaica.

Now, Clarke is back home finishing her classes online. Her internship at the Center for Health Equity and the hospital-based food pantry at the center have come to a grinding halt. Clarke is spending her final days as a college student at home in Hartford.

“We can’t really do anything right now,” Clarke said. “This is beyond our control.”

Sugarman pointed out that for many scholars, the closing of residence halls isn’t just disappointing. It’s devastating.

“Sometimes they come from very supportive families and extended families,” Sugarman said. “In many cases they come from families that are broken up. In some cases they have been alone while they are in college. They don’t have a place to go back to.”

Sugarman said 75% of Promise scholars are low-income. The Promise emergency fund provides students with additional financial support. Within the first few days of the fund, 35 students requested support.

“It includes things like, ‘I don’t know where I am going to live, I need to be able to pay rent, I don’t know what I am going to do for food this week, I don’t have a laptop to do the online work,’” Sugarman said.

Clarke said the fund was an asset to her when her father’s barbershop closed down because of the virus.

“I feel like they’re always there to help out a lot,” Clarke said.

Clarke hopes to pursue a career in food security and recently applied for a job with the Food Corps.

Sugarman said that regardless of the obstacles, the accomplishments of students like Clarke will be recognized.

“I never want to lose sight of the talents and strengths and assets of these young people in Hartford,” Sugarman said. “It’s easy to see the deficits in Hartford. But we need to see the strengths and assets.”