College Credits

College Credits

Jean Paton Lovell may not be a household name even here in her hometown, but the James Hillhouse High School math teacher left behind a stunning legacy: the New Haven Scholarship Fund.

It started in 1959, when Lovell raised $400, matched it with $400 of her own and sent eight students to what was then called Southern Connecticut State College for one year. Lovell told The New York Times in a 1982 profile that before coming to New Haven, she’d taught in a working class neighborhood in New York City, “where many of her students were too poor to purchase the textbooks they needed.” Later, at Hillhouse, she noticed that “the home addresses of graduating seniors seemed to be largely in the more affluent New Haven neighborhoods.” Putting two and two together, she decided it was time to take action.

Times have changed, and with them the cost of a college education, but over the course of more than 60 years, NHSF has awarded $10 million in scholarships to help more than 9,000 New Haven students start their college journeys.

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In a normal year, NHSF (not to be confused with New Haven Promise, another scholarship program) receives upwards of 200 applications, board president Jeff Alpert says, and nearly every one of those students receives funding. This year, presumably due to pandemic disruptions in the flow of information, fewer than 50 students have applied so far. Applications are open through March 15. Eligibility requirements include New Haven residency, attendance for the full senior year at one of New Haven’s public, magnet or technical schools and a maximum family income of $72,000. “We don’t judge on their grades,” Alpert says. “If you get into college, that means that you’re qualified.”

Last year 211 first-year college students and 87 continuing students from New Haven received awards ranging from $600 to $2,000 each. That might not sound like much when put up against the typical cost of college today, but for low-income students in particular, even a small amount of funding can spell the difference between going to college or missing out.

“The New Haven Scholarship Fund was one of the critical factors for my decision,” says scholarship recipient Keyla Higa, a 2016 graduate of Hillhouse who received funding for all four years of her college career at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Before receiving the NHSF scholarship, she’d been limiting her plans to community college because she didn’t think she could pay for a four-year school.

Born in New Haven, Higa moved with her family to their native Indonesia when she was about two years old, but she had American citizenship, and as she grew up, she often thought about returning someday. That opportunity came when she was 15; she moved in with family friends in New Haven in order to attend Hillhouse. When it was time to apply for college, Lawrence offered her the best financial aid package, but it still wasn’t enough. “I still needed to pay out of pocket, and New Haven Scholarship sort of saved me there to cut down some out-of-pocket expenses for me,” Higa says. Today she’s in graduate school at Erasmus University Rotterdam studying the governance of migration and diversity with the hope of eventually working in the field of international education, perhaps for UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Some of the 9,000 students helped by NHSF have in turn invested in the New Haven area. Among them are Jim Barber, track coach at Southern Connecticut State University and founder of the nonprofit New Haven Age Group Track Club; Peter Stolzman, a high school history teacher inducted into Branford’s Education Hall of Fame; and Babz Rawls Ivy, arts advocate, radio personality and Inner-City News editor-in-chief. Ivy graduated from the culinary program at Eli Whitney Technical High School in the early ’80s and headed off to Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina, with a NHSF scholarship. The money “makes a hurdle less of a hurdle” for New Haven’s graduates, she says, but the encouragement that comes from being granted a scholarship also matters. “It gives people a sense of belonging to a community,” Ivy says. “This is your town, and your town is saying, ‘We value what you do, we want to support what you do, and go with all our best intentions.’”

Alpert, himself a third-generation Hillhouse graduate, retired from his job teaching science and mathematics at the Sound School after taking over as NHSF board president five years ago. In the last few years some major gifts have come in, and Alpert is spearheading an effort to improve the Fund’s digital platform and outreach. Like everyone on the board, he’s a volunteer. As a result, he says, “Every dollar donated is a dollar that goes to kids. That’s very rare for any organization.”

NHSF still operates on Lovell’s original philosophy—as Alpert puts it, “We’ll get you started”—but it also helps to fund subsequent years for many students like Keyla Higa. The dropoff in students requesting scholarships after the first year is one issue Alpert plans to diagnose. “I don’t think that’s a function of their academic capability,” he says, “but I think it’s more of a function of their inability to pay” for college overall. “That’s sad.”

What’s more hopeful is the Fund’s tenacity over time and its opportunity to grow with more financial support from local businesses and donations from the community. By the time Lovell died in 1996 at the age of 102, she’d seen generations of students honored with the scholarship she’d created and fundraised for throughout much of her retirement. But the needs of New Haven’s students remain urgent. “It’s essential,” Alpert says. “25% of the population in the city are below the poverty line… You’re talking about a significant amount of individuals who need financial support in order to be able to move forward.”

As Jean Paton Lovell understood, a little help at the right time can make a big difference.

New Haven Scholarship Fund
Application deadline: March 15, 2021
(203) 389-1622 |

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Nirat.pix for Shutterstock.

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