Cornerstone provides foundation for academic achievement

WUSTL’s Center for Advanced Learning helps students in need succeed

Arts & Sciences senior Greg Opara, a standout student both inside and outside the classroom, appreciates the support he has received through Cornerstone, Washington University’s Center for Advanced Learning. (Credit: James Byard)

Washington University in St. Louis senior Greg Opara considered Johns Hopkins Medical School a long shot. Harvard, too. And University of Rochester.

But one by one the letters arrived — all three medical schools wanted him to interview on campus. As did a dozen more. Opara was elated. Then reality hit.

“I realized there was no way I could afford to make these visits,” says Opara, the son of struggling Nigerian immigrants. “If you don’t interview, you don’t get in, but there was nothing I could do.”

Opara turned to Ashley Gilkey, diversity in retention coordinator at Cornerstone, Washington University’s Center for Advanced Learning.

Gilkey used funds from the federal TRIO grant to fly Opara to four interviews. TRIO is just one of many WUSTL programs that serves low-income students, first-generation students and/or students with disabilities.

TRIO also helps students buy books and supplies, travel home for holidays, and afford expensive test-prep courses such as the one Opara took for the Medical College Admission Test.

“Greg’s done the hard work. He deserves this shot,” Gilkey says. “It would be a shame if he could not follow his dream because of a plane ticket.”

Opara may be surprised so many top-notch medical schools, including Washington University School of Medicine, want him on campus, but his advisers aren’t.

A standout student both inside and outside the classroom, Opara is majoring in psychology and minoring in biology in the College of Arts & Sciences, and he has made the Dean’s List every year. Opara also has served as a residential advisor in Eliot Residential College for the past two years and has tutored third-graders in the Each One Teach One and Books and Basketball programs.

“He is an incredible model for the first-year students — serious about his academic pursuits and engaged in the campus community,” says Brian Carpenter, PhD, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and Eliot Residential College faculty fellow. “And he is a genuine friend to everyone.”

Opara is interested in orthopedics, pediatric medicine and psychiatry. To him, medicine is about more than scalpels and prescriptions — it’s about listening.

“The biggest thing I look forward to is building that unique relationship where your patients depend on you and trust you,” Opara says. “When I look at the meaningful experiences I’ve had here at Washington University — being an RA and a tutor — it’s that one-on-one interaction that I enjoy the most.”

Opara first developed a passion for medicine as a student at Hightower High School, a suburban Houston magnet school with a medical sciences program. Opara’s plan was to stay in Texas for college, maybe attend Baylor University or the University of Texas at Austin. Then he started to receive letters from Washington University.

“I had never thought about going to a school the caliber of Wash. U. Actually I didn’t even know Wash. U. existed until I started getting all of this mail from them,” Opara recalls. “Finally, I looked them up and was impressed.”

WUSTL accepted him as did other schools. But WUSTL offered the best financial aid package. That made a huge difference to Opara. His father, Innocent, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when Opara was a junior. Today, the cancer is in remission, but his treatment has taken a toll and he cannot work.

Opara’s mother, Kate, is an optometrist and works 12 hours a day, six days a week at two clinics to support Opara and his three younger siblings. Opara worries about them. How can he not? But his parents tell him to stay focused on school.

“My parents really don’t want what’s happening at home to be a burden on me,” Opara says. “But it’s always on my mind — is my dad taking care of himself, is everything OK financially for them?”

‘We’re there for them every step of the way

Washington University services such as Cornerstone are there to help. In fact, Gilkey and other staff members help many students like Opara through TRIO, the federal program that supports first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities.

Now in its 44th year at WUSTL, the program is among the nation’s most successful. One key measure — graduation — tells the story.

Washington University already boasts one of the nation’s best 6-year graduation rates – 94 percent. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, that places WUSTL at No. 11 among top research universities. TRIO students graduate at an even higher rate: 97 percent.

“That’s because we’re there for them every step of the way,” Gilkey says.

Gilkey credits the program’s emphasis on both academic and emotional support. The program boasts five advisers and a team of TRIO student leaders who guide students through their collegiate journey. These resources are in addition to the services provided to all students by Residential Life, Student Health Services, Student Financial Services, four-year advisers and other departments.

“At Cornerstone, we’ve got the writing help desk and the calculus and chemistry help sessions and appointment-based mentoring, but it’s also the emotional support,” Gilkey says.

“We’re here if a student needs to talk about a family member back home or about adjusting to this environment. Maybe your roommate comes from a totally different background: How can you still live together and learn from each other? These are the sorts of questions we can help with. And they matter, because if you don’t feel connected to the students around you, it’s not going to matter how you do academically.”

For Opara, fitting in was easier than he expected. Certainly, many WUSTL students are affluent, but they also are open-minded, Opara says. He counts his freshman floor-mates among his closest friends. Still, his first year did pose some unexpected financial challenges.

“I never thought all these other expenses like books would be a problem until they came up,” Opara says. “It was a huge relief knowing TRIO was there, especially to help me get home during breaks. My brother calls me twice a week to ask about school and stuff. So, as the oldest sibling, I want to be there for them. Being able to see them, more than anything, has meant so much to me.”

And to Opara’s dad. He’s proud of his son, but he misses him, too.

“It was like living a miracle that he could come home to be with us,” says Innocent Opara. “That was something unbelievable. We asked ourselves, ‘How can this be possible?’”

Innocent now speaks at high school college fairs about Washington University. He says it is one way he can give back to the school that has given his son so much.

“I share his story and the story of Washington University’s generosity,” Innocent says. “They opened up a new future to him. And for that, Washington University is a like a second home to us in our hearts.”