Opening Doors, Closing the Opportunity Gap

The Tartan Scholars program creates opportunities for high-achieving students

By Sarah Burke

First-year Carnegie Mellon University student Michael is not only a Tartan — he’s a Tartan Scholar.

Along with more than 50 of his peers, Michael is part a new initiative that is empowering high-achieving students from limited-resource backgrounds to excel at CMU and beyond.

“Coming to CMU, I was afraid of facing inequality or experiencing imposter syndrome,” Michael says. “The Tartan Scholars program is helping us become comfortable asking for help in a new environment. I get the benefit of being part of a family away from my family.”

Michael’s close-knit family of Tartan Scholars was created thanks to support from a five-year gift from the Posner Foundation of Pittsburgh and the establishment of the Pittsburgh Student Success Fund.

“The goal of the CMU Experience is for all of our students to live healthier, richer and well-balanced lives. Our family foundation is truly pleased to support the Tartan Scholars program, which provides resources so that students across the socio-economic spectrum can more readily thrive at CMU,” says Anne Molloy, CMU trustee and trustee of the Posner Foundation. “I have had the opportunity to meet some of the first cohort of Tartan Scholars. They are bright, talented, enthusiastic, confident and working hard! It is an honor to support their journey through their undergraduate experience at CMU.”

A group of Tartan Scholars meet

The Tartan Scholars program strives to close the opportunity gap by providing a rich network of academic, social and financial support.

This includes:

  • Opportunities to meet and spend time with CMU leadership
  • Personalized academic coaching
  • Staff and peer mentorship
  • Common classes for the entire cohort to ensure they have academic support in foundational areas like writing
  • Professional development experiences like internships, research and study abroad that may otherwise be out of reach due to finances
  • Community meals throughout the semester
  • An introduction to campus programs that are available to help them succeed, such as tutoring, counseling and emergency resources

Tartan Scholars also have dedicated time for personal growth and discovery. For example, students returned to campus early for a winter retreat to reflect on their first semester and to plan for upcoming academic opportunities this spring.

The first class of Tartan Scholars has a roster of tremendous accomplishments, including starting their own businesses, being a member of the National Youth Orchestra, successfully hiking a continental glacier and sailing around the world.

Jen Gilbride-Brown, assistant vice provost for student success, says the program amplifies students’ strengths and creates a sense of belonging to a community that cares about them.

She notes that many of CMU’s students from limited-resource backgrounds recognize the profound differences between their high schools and those attended by their more privileged peers. Coming to CMU, they may not know where to go for help or assume help is unavailable.

“Through Tartan Scholars, we want to make CMU’s incredible resources and educational opportunities more visible to students who may not be aware of them,” Gilbride-Brown says. “For these students, it’s not a talent issue but an opportunity issue.”

The impact of the program this academic year has been transformational to this first class. So far, 17 scholars have enrolled in the academic coaching program, which provides personalized support to help them with study skills and time management.

Nine staff members along with 13 student Tartan Scholar Ambassadors — peer mentors who also come from limited-resource backgrounds — provide guidance, one-on-one and in small groups.

“When it comes to problem solving, this group of students is so resilient, independent and creative,” Gilbride-Brown says. “At the same time, they really value the advice of other students who have been in their shoes.”

The Ambassadors are also an important resource in shaping the program.

“We’ve been talking with our Ambassadors to learn what would have been helpful for them during their first year,” Gilbride-Brown says.

Olivia, a senior and Tartan Scholar Ambassador, says that a program like Tartan Scholars could have helped her navigate her first year at CMU.

“Coming from a blue-collar hometown, the first year at CMU can be lonely. I think Tartan Scholars would have helped me learn to ask for things earlier in my college career,” she says. “It was really hard to develop friendships at first because I was starting from scratch — no family nearby, no familiar people or places.”

Now she’s able to share her knowledge with first-year students and help them succeed. Olivia has had the opportunity to attend mentorship trainings, connect with Scholars at community meals and create special workshops and events.

“I’m excited to inspire Scholars to think about what the happiest, most confident version of themselves looks like.” Olivia, senior and Tartan Scholar Ambassador

Since its launch in August, the program has continued to gain steam. Andrew Carnegie Society President Bryon Krug (E 1998) recently made a $100,000 gift to extend the reach of the Tartan Scholars program.

“We’re so grateful to the Posner Foundation and Bryon for their generous gifts — and all of our community members who are partnering to support this program,” says Amy Burkert, CMU’s vice provost for education. “Our Tartan Scholars have unlimited potential, and this powerful new initiative will help them make the most of their CMU education.”

For Michael, Tartan Scholars has already been a lifeline as he adapts to college and gets to know the CMU community.

“I know I have people in my corner that want to see me be the best person I can be,” he says. “So when challenges arrive, I have options.”