Standing on stage inside the Nicholas Music Center at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in early June, Jason Gaines holds a microphone, takes a breath, and surveys the 215 attentive seventh-grade students seated in the front three rows of the auditorium. It’s the annual welcome celebration for the newest cohort of Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS), and the morning has been an emotional one.

“You know, all of these stories you’re hearing today are genuine,” Gaines SAS’17 says to the soon-to-be eighth graders decked out in scarlet T-shirts that read I Am a Rutgers Future Scholar. “And that’s why it sometimes takes a moment for us to speak. Because for us, this has been nine years in the making.”


Rutgers Future Scholars Prepare for College

Gaines motions to eight of his peers standing to his right. For nearly a decade, each of them was mentored, nurtured, and tirelessly championed throughout middle school and high school until finally being awarded full-tuition scholarships to Rutgers. In May, they graduated from the university as members of the first full class of Rutgers Future Scholars, and for the better part of a half hour, these nine living embodiments of the program’s full potential take turns reflecting on their experiences while also inspiring the Class of 2026 for the journey ahead.

Yauris Hernandez  and Jason Gaines


Jason Gaines and Yauris Hernandez appeared on the cover of the Fall 2009 issue of Rutgers Magazine, which marked the first anniversary of the Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) program. Eight years later, the two students, who graduated in May, were photographed again by the Hamilton Street entrance to the Old Queens Campus at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Gaines and Hernandez, accepting jobs soon after graduation, are now working full time.

Nick Romanenko

“I know at any moment now, I’m going to start crying because it’s way too emotional for me to be here standing in front of you,” says Marina Costa SAS’17. “It feels like yesterday that I was sitting where you are now, but we didn’t have an older class to look up to. We were the first ones. We didn’t even know what was possible.”

Taking the microphone from Costa, Brandon Diaz-Abreu SAS’17 says, “There’s no way of describing how your life is going to change through this program. Some of the most successful people I’ve ever met are standing on this stage here with me. And some of the most successful people you are ever going to meet are sitting there next to you now.”

Each and every testimony conveys varying shades on the same sentiments and themes. The Rutgers Future Scholars program radically changes lives, breaks seemingly unbreakable cycles of poverty, and transforms both the minds and hearts of everyone it touches.

“I know it’s hard for you to imagine as seventh graders,” says Gaines, “but you are going to be among some of the most elite people in the world, and you’re going to be able to accomplish anything you want. Even I sometimes have to pinch myself. But it’s real, and it’s mind-blowing.”

Next class of Rutgers Future Scholars recruits in the Allison Road Classroom Building at Rutgers–New Brunswick, 2009.


Back in the fall of 2009, seventh graders, who will be part of this year’s class of college graduates, listened to what the experience would be like for them.

Nick Romanenko

Former Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick, also sitting on stage, listens intently to Gaines’s remarks. His thoughts return to 2007, back when M. William Howard Jr., a former chair of the Rutgers University Board of Governors, expressed to McCormick his growing concern that future generations of young people growing up in New Jersey’s cities would be unprepared to attend a public university like Rutgers. Not long after, McCormick approached Courtney McAnuff, who is the vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers and who had helped manage a remedial program operated by Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s and 1990s. Within hours, the concept for Rutgers Future Scholars was born.

“The reason there was so much emotion that morning wasn’t just because it was an anniversary,” says McCormick, speaking later. “A great majority of Rutgers Future Scholars come from backgrounds and communities where even graduation from high school can be a struggle. These boys and girls from Rutgers’ hometowns are not only selected because of their promising performances, but also because of the disadvantages they face. These were boys and girls who didn’t grow up expecting to go to college, but now their opportunities in life have been dramatically expanded through RFS.”

Former Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick, top, and Steve Colson, an early donor.


Former Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick, top, was the inspiration behind Rutgers Future Scholars. Steve Colson, an early donor, is among the individuals who have given $9.4 million to the program.

Nick Romanenko

After the ceremony is over, Gaines has a moment to organize his thoughts and reflect on a pivotal moment when the support of RFS went beyond the halls of learning. The summer after his sophomore year of high school, Gaines’s mother passed away unexpectedly. His father was in and out of jail, and Gaines had no other immediate guardians to care for him. So, his grandmother and a few other relatives drove up from Georgia and said they would be taking him down south.

“I had to plead with my family because they just didn’t understand the magnitude of RFS and what it was doing for me,” recalls Gaines, who recently started working on public affairs matters for AT&T. “In addition to the shock of losing my mom, I also had to contemplate the entire trajectory of my future, and I had already committed so much.”

But his uncertainty didn’t last long. As soon as RFS program director Aramis Gutierrez found out about the young man’s sudden tragedy, he coordinated with other RFS leaders who eventually found a way for Gaines to live with a relative in Montgomery Township, New Jersey, and continue his path toward success.

“I get teary-eyed thinking about it now because really— I felt loved. The folks from RFS were the ones who made me feel connected and cared for. And they didn’t have to do that; they chose to do that,” says Gaines. “It made me a lot stronger, and from then on, I truly realized there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish.”

Gutierrez remembers this moment vividly. For him it represents an aspect of the Rutgers Future Scholars program that he says he couldn’t have anticipated when he first came on as director in 2008. “When this program was originally launched, a lot of the focus was toward academic preparation. But with my background as a former teacher and school counselor, I knew it could be about so much more,” says Gutierrez. “Since then, we’ve been there for so many pivotal moments in these students’ lives in ways that have nothing to do with academics but more to do with life itself. It’s really been remarkable to witness.”

Current Future Scholars with mentors


Top: Tyrese Henryel, left, is a first-year student at Rutgers University–Newark, where his principal mentor will be Corey James, right. “Without RFS, I don’t even think I’d be going to college,” says Henryel, who plans to study journalism. “This has been such a big part of my life that I honestly have no idea where I’d be without it.”

Bottom: Marcellus Hill, center, has been mentoring Rutgers Future Scholars Thi Nguyen, left, and Marcqui Hill, right, both Camden residents who are first-year students at Rutgers University–Camden. “RFS has been a safe haven. An oasis. A fertile spot amongst dry land,” says Marcellus Hill, the brother of Marcqui. “So much of it has to do with the positivity.”

Nick Romanenko

Every year since its inception, the Rutgers Future Scholars program has offered the opportunity for a college education to first-generation, low-income, and academically promising middle school students from New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, Camden, and, now, Rahway. Their academic responsibilities are rigorous— comprising after-school, weekend, and summer classes—but they also receive vigorous academic support and mentoring from instructors and scholars now in college. And regardless of whatever struggles may emerge, they are never expelled from the program because of poor grades or attendance.

After graduating high school, scholars are free to attend the college of their choice—but if they choose Rutgers and are admitted, they are guaranteed full tuition and fees. To date, most scholars go on to pursue bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers; about a third enroll in other four-year institutions; and about 20 percent attend community college. Ninety-eight percent of active RFS students graduate from high school, with 90 percent of them enrolling in college the fall after graduating. Of the 183 students who made up the inaugural class, 163 enrolled in postsecondary institutions, 98 of them with the promised financial aid from Rutgers. The significance of their achievement wasn’t lost on the president of Rutgers, Robert Barchi. Shortly after beginning his 2017 University Commencement greetings on May 14 before a full house at High Point Solutions Stadium, he said: “Some among you—the first cohort of our Rutgers Future Scholars program—have literally been working toward their degrees since they finished seventh grade!”

The concept behind RFS is simple, but the impact has been profound. “Nine years in and this has turned out even better than I had imagined,” says McAnuff, who was also on stage during the June welcome ceremony, along with other key players in the success and history of RFS. The experience for him was as sweet as it was surreal.

“Having known those young men and women since they were in seventh grade and seeing their physical and mental metamorphosis was overwhelming,” recalls McAnuff. “Many programs try to address poverty and social malaise, but we now have nine years of real, positive outcomes.”

McAnuff points out that those outcomes extend beyond the metrics of academic success. Every cohort of 200 students saves the State of New Jersey $30 million, according to the study The Economic Value of the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, prepared by Queens College, City University of New York. Furthermore, a conservative estimate foresees state government coffers adding $70,000 per male scholar and $48,000 per female scholar in income tax alone during their working life. Add other revenue sources, such as property and sales tax, in addition to the savings in government outlays for things like public assistance and Medicaid, and the fiscal gain as a result of the Rutgers Future Scholars program jumps to $203,000 per male scholar and $110,000 per female scholar.

The uniqueness of RFS has caught the attention of  “dozens of higher education institutions, and the program is seen as a leader in college access,” according to Gutierrez.  James Madison University and the University of Michigan have already introduced the RFS model at their universities.

Courtney McAnuff, left, with Aramis Gutierrez


Courtney McAnuff, left, is a founding administrator of Rutgers Future Scholars who is also the vice president of enrollment management at Rutgers. He appears with Aramis Gutierrez, the director of the program. “Having known those young men and women since they were in seventh grade and seeing their physical and mental metamorphosis was overwhelming,” says McAnuff. “Many programs try to address poverty and social malaise, but we now have nine years of real, positive outcomes.”

Nick Romanenko

To date, roughly 2,000 students have become Rutgers  Future Scholars, including Yauris Hernandez, another member of the inaugural cohort. Hernandez SAS’17, like Gaines, graduated in May and plans to eventually obtain her Ph.D. in psychology and start her own consulting firm. Their accomplishments bring a mother’s pride to Eve Sachs, who has been with the program since 2007 as program coordinator. Gaines, who has been like a son to her, writes Sachs GSE’84 a touching poem every major holiday, including Mother’s Day, and her devoted “niece” Hernandez, always says yes to any request. “Being a part of the RFS family will bring you love and joy and keep you young,” says Sachs.

When Hernandez considers what her life would have been without RFS and people like Sachs, she has to hold back tears. “I can’t help but get emotional because I feel like I owe everything to the Rutgers Future Scholars program,” says Hernandez, a New Brunswick native. “Without it, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been prepared for life. I can’t even imagine how lost I’d be.”

It’s a familiar refrain echoed by Rutgers Future Scholars participants.

“Scholastically, RFS pushed me to do my very best to become the successful person I always had in mind,” says Camden native Thi Nguyen, who enrolled in RFS in 2012 and is a first-year student at Rutgers University–Camden who plans to study nursing. “Before this program, I didn’t know that giving back to the community could have such a huge impact on young generations—which means Rutgers Future Scholars has also changed my perspective on civic engagement. Overall, I got to expand my connections and meet people who eventually became like family to me.”

Marcellus Hill has served as one of Nguyen’s mentors over the past several years. A member of the program’s inaugural cohort as well, Hill looks toward graduating from Rutgers–Camden in December, an achievement, he says, he couldn’t fathom without the support of his RFS family.

Eve Sachs, RFS program coordinator, with scholar Dimple Patel


Eve Sachs, RFS program coordinator, shares a moment with scholar Dimple Patel, who is pursuing graduate studies at Western New England University.

Nick Romanenko

“RFS has been a safe haven. An oasis. A fertile spot amongst dry land,” says Hill. “So much of it has to do with the positivity. Coming from where I’m from, there aren’t too many opportunities for the youth, and if I didn’t have RFS in my life, I probably would have spent my downtime with a lot of folks who don’t have positive figures in their lives and don’t know right from wrong. This program gave me a different perspective on life and exposed me to so many positive and caring role models. It’s been like  another home.”

Also embarking on his first year at Rutgers this fall, Tyrese Henryel recalls how RFS required a lot more time and dedication than he originally expected, but the effort has been worth it.

“Without RFS, I don’t even think I’d be going to college,” says Henryel, who plans to study journalism at Rutgers University–Newark. “Academically, it gave me a bigger leg up than I could have imagined. And personally, it gave me maturity and made me think about the plans for my life much more clearly. This has been such a big part of my life that I honestly have no idea where I’d be without it.”

With annual operating costs hovering around  $2.3 million, the powerful, life-changing impact of RFS has since its inception relied primarily on private and corporate contributions from those who believe in its ambitious mission. All told, $13.6 million has been donated to RFS over the past nine years, with  $9.4 million coming from individuals and the rest from sustaining gifts made by corporations like AT&T, which is the program’s largest single institutional benefactor.

“This program appeals to our alumni and friends because its mission aligns with their ethos,” says Drew Kaiden, associate vice president for development at the Rutgers University Foundation. “Since so many of our alumni and friends were first-generation collegians from economically disadvantaged communities, they can easily empathize with the plight of the scholars and are drawn to the opportunity to empower them.”

For instance, this year’s inaugural cohort of Rahway students wouldn’t have been possible without last year’s $1.75 million gift from P. Roy and Diana Vagelos, a donation that will allow 15 Rahway students to participate in the program every year for at least the next six years. Roy Vagelos, a physician and biochemist who served as the CEO of pharmaceutical giant  Merck, graduated from Rahway High School in 1947.

“Beyond financial support, many of our donors have been transformational in the lives of the scholars,” says Michael Marion, associate vice president for corporate relations at the Rutgers University Foundation. “Not only do they do this through internships and jobs for the graduating class, but also through mentorships, experiential opportunities, showing up for them at milestone moments in the program’s  history, and in some cases coming to their aid in particular times of need or urgency.”

Marion points to one such alumni donor, Luke Visconti, who has been a champion of the program since day one. Visconti CC’82 has used his communications enterprise, DiversityInc., to drive awareness of RFS and amplify the importance of it to his corporate constituents. He’s also provided numerous internship and possible job opportunities to many RFS students over the years.

“I met Luke Visconti in my sophomore year of high school, and he gave me an internship at his company during my sophomore year of college, which is when I found out diversity and inclusion were really my passions,” says Hernandez, who recently accepted a full-time position with the company.  “And to this day, he’s one of my biggest mentors. He’s vouched for me and is such a huge supporter of mine. And he gives me advice like a father figure.”

Other key individual donors include George Tsacnaris RC’82, who has also provided internships and employment opportunities through his employer, the telecommunications software company iconectiv. Barbara DC’76 and Gary RC’74 Rodkin have donated through the Rodkin Family Foundation, and Sol GSNB’70,’74 and Meri Barer have given through the Barer Family Foundation. Another generous donor has been the Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Family Foundation.

“What I’ve learned is that everybody really wants to help these kids, and I  haven’t had a donor turn us down once we’ve been able to show them the impact of this program,” says McAnuff. “And I think it’s because these kids earn it. They show real grit. They may not have the  opportunities others have had, but they put the work into making their own achievements, and I think people want to reward that behavior.”

Consider Steve Colson, who has donated to RFS since it was launched. Colson, who has since created the Cresthaven Academy Charter School in Plainfield, New Jersey, also spoke at the June welcome ceremony, and as he turned to the Class of 2017, he, too, couldn’t avoid choking up.

“To the Class of 2017, I give eternal thanks for the joy and love you have given me,” he said, pausing to gather his overflowing emotions while the audience applauded. “I am so, so proud of you. God bless Rutgers Future Scholars.”

“These past eight years have been some of the most defining moments of my life,” says Colson, speaking a few weeks later. “They’ve shaped my life, and it’s just impossible to be even slightly cynical about something like this. I thought I was going to make one donation back in 2008 and that would be it. But what’s kept me involved is the extreme talent of these young people. They’re not only bright, but they’re also kind, savvy, and just really good scholars. This isn’t just a program where we see these kids every now and then during the summer. We are a family, and we’re all invested in their success together.”

That sense of collective enthusiasm is present in everyone whose lives have been touched by RFS, including those who are just about to embark on this new adventure. Jennifer, an incoming scholar who spoke at the welcome ceremony, hopes to become a surgeon.

“I want to save lives, to help others,” she says. “When I got accepted to RFS, I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing and gave me a chance to do more than what I ever could. And it gave everyone here a chance to do what they want to do in life. We still have a long way to go, so let’s just do it together—as a family!” •

For more information about RFS, visit or contact Aramis Gutierrez at To learn how you can support the program, contact Drew Kaiden at