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Difference Maker

How a college president toppled the ivory tower

Pine Manor College was once a haven for privileged white women. Now its seeing a surge in low-income and minority students.

By / staff writer / December 13, 2010

Gloria Nemerowicz (c., seated), president of Pine Manor College, is surrounded by some of her students at the college’s campus in Chestnut Hill, Mass., near Boston. She is on a mission to boost the number of underserved minorities who graduate from college in the United States.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Chestnut Hill, Mass.

To pay for her education at a public university in New Jersey, Gloria Nemerowicz worked in a bakery, a meat market, and a dry cleaning shop.

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Her immigrant parents hadn't gone to college and thought her desire to do so was a bit strange. But as long as it didn't cost them anything, they were fine with it.

That's one reason Dr. Nemerowicz radiates respect for students who must pinch every penny or tread an unfamiliar path as the first in their families to go to college.

The young women at Pine Manor College, located on a bucolic campus on the outskirts of Boston, call Nemerowicz by her first name – something she encourages even though she's president of the college. Long a haven for privileged white women, under her leadership Pine Manor has been transformed into one of the nation's most diverse liberal arts colleges.

Students hail from Haiti and Maine, Boston and Mexico. Their SAT scores and grades are usually just average, and more than 60 percent qualify for low-income federal Pell Grants.

But at Pine Manor, and dozens of small colleges like it around the country, students are supported and valued for the life experiences they bring to the classroom.

Now Nemerowicz is drawing on her experience here to answer President Obama's call to restore the United States as a world leader in producing college graduates, particularly by raising the number of degrees earned by underrepresented groups.

"The need for us to find solutions to really grave problems in the world ... means that we can't waste talent," she says. "The work of increasing graduation rates in this country – that's what's burning in my heart."

Only 18 percent of African-American and 12 percent of Hispanic adults have completed four years of college, compared with more than 30 percent of white non-Hispanics, according to a recent report by the Lumina Foundation. The foundation's goal is to help raise the percentage of US adults with college degrees from 39 percent today to 60 percent by 2025.

Colleges like Pine Manor can play a big role in meeting that goal, Nemerowicz says. It's the kind of work they've been doing – somewhat invisibly – for years.

Last spring, she held a "Yes We Must" summit at Pine Manor, bringing together presidents from 11 small liberal arts colleges and education groups that serve low-income and minority students. They shared ways to make college more affordable and raise graduation rates – and launched a Yes We Must coalition at about 100 schools.

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