Gathered together at a set of tables, the group of seven students fell on a spectrum of difference.
Stella Safari and Taylor Thomas both graduated from local high schools, although the former was born in Rwanda and moved to Johnson City after her family “won the green card lottery.” Taylor is an alumna of Chenango Forks. Noah Thayne was homeschooled in Newark Valley, while Eni Vaghy attended an all-online charter school across the border in Pennsylvania.
Others came from further afield: Nia Been hails from Staten Island, Jon Wilken from Long Island and Nikki Putnam from northern Texas near the Oklahoma border, a 1,500-mile drive she made by herself at the start of the semester.
Their dreams, too, are different: attorney and scientist, communications professional, FBI agent.
But other things bring them together: the desire to excel academically, small and challenging classes, the chance to work together on in-depth projects.
Meet this year’s AA1 students. They are only the second class to go through the program, which allows them to earn their Associate in Arts degree in a single year and ultimately transfer to top-flight schools.
“We’re the only community college in New York with an AA1 program and one of the few in the country,” SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm told the students, their mentors and their families during a recent reception. “You’re more unique and special than students in Harvard. There are only seven of you.”
The program is classical and well-rounded, giving students an introduction to an array of topics while honing their intellectual skills. It’s also not open to everyone. Students who rank in the top 2 percent of their graduating class at the time of their application are automatically accepted; those in the top 3 to 10 percent or have a minimum GPA of 95 are encouraged to apply and are reviewed by a selection committee.
Classes encourage the development of critical thinking which is something that Nia and Jon said they appreciated.
“The critical thinking part of it really helps me and my classmates to improve,” Jon said.
The program began with a class of five students last year, and is growing increasing interest, noted Dean of Liberal Arts Michael Kinney.
“I thought it was a good deal to get two years done in one,” said Nikki, who learned about the college while researching Binghamton University.
Like Nikki, several members of this year’s class are considering Binghamton University as a next step, although Stella is aiming for Cornell and Noah considering SUNY Oswego or the University of Buffalo. Graduate degrees also beckon, accompanying a wide range of career goals: Noah and Eni imagine careers in communications, while Nia plans to become an attorney, Jon a biochemist, Taylor an FBI agent. Stella hopes to found a nonprofit to help African children living in poverty. Nikki isn’t quite sure yet, but appreciates the opportunity to explore.
Many of them also entered the program with college credit they earned while in high school. Taylor and Stella are also Presidential Honors Scholars.
The AA1 scholars work together on large-scale projects. This year, they’re creating a documentary on Lyme disease for their class in “The Art of Science.” They have compiled hours of footage, from collecting ticks in the field as part of ongoing research to interviewing patients, medical personnel and researchers, noted Professor Tracy Curtis. They learned to set up lighting to get the best shots and to edit.
Noah and Eny, who are both considering communications careers, are particularly fond of the editing process. When he was small, Noah used to record himself and make his own radio shows, he admitted. But all of the students are exploring their potential and developing skillsets, Eny was quick to point out. Nikki, as it turns out, is a pro at finding royalty-free music.
“We’re finding out things about ourselves that we didn’t know before,” Nikki said. “It’s great.”
The project and their classes also bring the students together. They have become a close group, observed Donna Rehak, staff associate of to the Dean of Liberal Arts, who has seen the group in action.
Dr. Curtis expects the documentary will be completed at the end of the semester, and plans to stage several showings.
Professors, administrators and mentors alike are optimistic about what the future will hold for this talented crew.
‘From here, you really will be able to go anywhere and do anything,” President Drumm said. “We are really looking at seven future great leaders of this country.”