Stella Safari had hoped to head out of town for college, but her parents convinced her to stay.

SUNY Broome was a good choice, they said – highly affordable with a top-notch academic program. She listened – and she’s glad she did.

A top student at Johnson City High School, she qualified for both the Presidential Honors Scholarship – which gave her a free ride – and the AA1 program. Designed for academically gifted and highly motivated students, the program allows them to earn their Associate in Arts degree in a single year and ultimately transfer to top-flight schools.

“Instead of doing two years here, I’m doing one year and trying it out, and then transferring. I felt this is a smart choice,” Safari said.

The AA1 Program kicked off only two years ago. Classes are small and academically challenging, giving students the opportunity to bond with one another while working on research projects.

Last semester, the group worked on a 30-minute documentary on Lyme Disease, which has become endemic to Broome County. While Safari wasn’t initially interested in the topic, the research opened her eyes. While some AA1 students had a knack for video production and editing, Safari conducted many of the interviews with students, doctors and researchers.

“It was a good thing, getting us all together. There are seven people in the program and we all have different strengths. Who knew that we could actually do that?” she reflected on the documentary, which is now available online.

Watch the video here:

This semester, research centers on the group’s social problems and research methods class. Class members will break up into groups and create a research proposal, part of which may involve issuing a survey to students. Safari’s group is exploring college students’ attitudes toward white privilege, a timely topic thanks to the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In some senses, the AA1 program creates a school within a school, with close ties between fellow students. They often hang out together after class, sharing interests that go beyond their research.

Still, they are a diverse bunch. Several are local high school graduates; two were homeschooled. There are also students from Long Island, Staten Island and even Texas.

“It’s pretty diverse,” Safari reflected.


Making a difference

In high school, Stella Safari was a go-getter, involved with everything from the lacrosse team to church and multiple fundraisers. She’s followed that trend at SUNY Broome, where she plays lacrosse, volunteers and participates in many clubs, in addition to holding a job off campus.

While she grew up in Broome County, her story starts more than 7,000 miles away in Rwanda, the country of her birth.

When she was not quite five years old, her parents won the “green card lottery” and were accepted for immigration into the United States, along with their daughters. They had a lot to give up – not only their friends and family back home, but their professional success. In Rwanda, Stella’s father worked as a professor and a businessman, and her mother as a doctor. Now, her father is a postal worker and her mother a nurse at a local hospital.

“My parents made humongous sacrifices for me to be where I am. I’m trying to make a positive impact,” Stella said.

She has never returned to Rwanda, although both of her parents have visited, and has lost the language. Still, her home country grounds her sense of mission. While her family lived in a wealthy home, just 15 minutes away people were living in intense poverty. Some didn’t even own shoes.

After she graduates from AA1, she is looking to transfer to a four-year school; the University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University and Cornell University are all on her radar. Her goal: to make a difference in the lives of the next generation.

“I plan to do my bachelor’s in business administration and then a master’s. I’d like to create a nonprofit to help kids in poverty,” she explained. “Being born in Africa, I see the need. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to get a good education, especially in Africa.”


Spreading the word

In the meantime, Stella Safari is enjoying her time at SUNY Broome – the many activities she partakes in, the company of her classmates and the chance to be a role model. While the coursework can be challenging, professors in the AA1 program are highly supportive, both pushing students to do their best and encouraging them to take advantage of what campus life has to offer, Safari said.

She has also tried to spread the word about the AA1 program and what it offers. Her two teenaged sisters are interested, and Safari has also dropped off brochures at her former high school. She’s talked it up to anyone who seems to have an interest.

Why? Because it’s a good deal and a great experience.

“It’s an amazing place. Broome surpassed my expectations,” she said. “I just wish I could spend more time here. It’s an amazing place.”