- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

ST. MARY’S CITY, Md. — The college experience has been challenging for Layla Wynn, a District resident who graduated yesterday from St. Mary’s College. She quit the basketball team in her sophomore year and her grades — near perfect in high school — started to slip before she eventually adjusted and began to excel.

But the struggle just to attend college has perhaps been equally challenging.

Ten years ago, Miss Wynn, 21, and classmate Adrianna Cofield, 23, were among a group of six-graders at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in Northwest promised full college scholarships if they stayed in school. Then they learned as high school seniors that the money was not there and that the foundation making the promise had folded.

The families scrambled to find new sources of aid. Donors who learned of their plight and financial aid packages from such schools as St. Mary’s helped put Miss Wynn and Miss Cofield through college for free.

“The money, unfortunately, didn’t come from the source where it was originally promised, but we still got it,” Miss Wynn said.

The scholarship pledge was made by businessman George Abel, who said his foundation would pay the college costs of each student who stayed in school through high school. That was the last the Bruce-Monroe students heard from him.

Mr. Abel later said his foundation ran out of money in the early 1990s, and that his promise hinged on his ability to raise new funds. But many of the parents and students didn’t save for college, believing they had full scholarships waiting for them.

“We assumed it was there,” said Andrea Cofield, the twin sister of Adrianna, who started at St. Mary’s and will graduate next month from Nyack College in New York. “We didn’t realize it wasn’t going to be fulfilled.”

Mr. Abel declined to talk when contacted at the Bethesda spiritual center he runs.

Miss Wynn and the Cofield sisters entered St. Mary’s in the fall of 2001 after the college reached out to many of the former Bruce-Monroe students. Their tuition and board, now at $24,560 a year for out-of-state students, was covered by scholarships.

The adjustment was difficult. St. Mary’s is at the tip of rural Southern Maryland, much different than the women’s urban neighborhoods.

Andrea transferred to Nyack to take theology classes not offered at St. Mary’s. Miss Wynn went from playing on St. Mary’s team basketball team to regular pickup games. Adrianna struggled some with being a black student at a largely white school.

Adrianna became a theater major, writing and producing her own play for her senior project. Andrea excelled in Nyack’s theology program. Miss Wynn helped create an educational program to combat childhood obesity and earned a 3.4 grade point average this spring.

St. Mary’s kept close tabs on the Bruce-Monroe students.

“It confirmed for me that if you have an educational opportunity for a student who has the drive, they will take it and run with it,” said college President Maggie O’Brien.

The women plan to attend graduate school, with help from St. Mary’s. Adrianna will focus on Pan-African studies and Miss Wynn will study city planning.

The District of Columbia College Access Program, which has helped fund some of the Bruce-Monroe students, is trying to find the 30 classmates who went to college. Program officials know of five students — including Miss Wynn and the Cofield sisters— who are graduating from college this year.

“It was as dream somebody had that these kids would get a college education,” said Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo High School in Columbia Heights, where many of the Bruce-Monroe students went. “I guess it doesn’t really matter how it happened. It did happen.”

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