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Promoting Potential

Promoting PotentialWith the help of several other Tufts students, senior Matt Cohen has spent his last year providing education and hope to immigrant students in Somerville.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.17.08] When Matt Cohen (A'08) set out to make a difference in Tufts' host communities, he never expected to one day find himself surrounded by a cheering crowd of more than 18,000 people.

Cohen, a senior psychology major, recently received the "Heroes Among Us" award from the Boston Celtics for his work founding the "Academic Program" geared toward helping first-generation American students at Somerville High School prepare for college.

"After the ceremony I remember getting a hot dog and having people yell 'Hey Matt, great job, keep up the good work,'" Cohen recalls. Cohen was escorted to the March 2 game in a limo, taken to meet the players and brought down on the court during the game for a ceremony, relaying his work to thousands of Celtic fans.

Cohen was nominated for the award by fellow Tufts student and program volunteer, Justin Oldfield (A'08), who says that the after-school program has been just as meaningful to the tutors as the students.

"Matt's program has not only changed the lives of each high school student, giving them the potential to go to college but it has been just as valuable for the tutors," Oldfield wrote in a letter nominating Cohen for the Celtics award. "Having had very little community service experience, I was reluctant to tutor in this program; the Academic Program has inspired me and I now believe that this commitment to helping others will be a life-long passion that will continue for a very long time."

Originally from West Orange, N.J., Cohen says his passion to educate comes from prior work at a charter school near his home.

"I spent a few summers working at a charter school in Newark, which is one of the most underperforming school systems in the country," he says. "This charter school, however, prides themselves on the fact that 100 percent of their students go to college and just seeing that when given the attention these kids could succeed, that gave me the passion to do this."

Interested in volunteering? E-mail Matt Cohen at

Through his involvement with Hillel's Moral Choices initiative, Cohen was asked to work on creating a local project raising awareness of moral issues in the community. After collaborating with several other Tufts students, it was decided that their best outlet would be to help local high school students brave the waters of the college application process, a project which began this October.

"We decided we wanted to work with a very specific population, which was immigrants," Cohen says. "Most of these students are first-generation Americans and their parents are completely unfamiliar with the process. Some don't even fully understand how important college is."

Cohen, through the help of Department of Education lecturer Steve Cohen (no relation), was able to connect with Centro Presente, a member-driven, statewide immigrant organization dedicated to the self-sufficiency of Massachusetts immigrant community.

"The program is held at Centro Presente headquarters in Union Square and creates a safe and positive environment where learning is encouraged and where they get to work one-on-one with a Tufts mentor who has successfully navigated through the college application process," Matt said.

Starting out with eight to 10 Tufts students as tutors, the program has grown to 20 Tufts tutors and expanded to include middle school students and preparation for the mandatory Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests.

"The first day of orientation for the program, the high school students told us some of the challenges to being an immigrant, from going after school for help and hearing a teacher say 'I'm not getting paid for this,' to one student being told not to worry about high school because they could get their GED in a few years," says Cohen. "So many people have given up on these kids, but we're not going to."

He adds, "It is so thrilling coming in and seeing a student who is tired from being in school all day, laughing and getting excited about what they are doing."

As the program moves forward, Cohen says there are plans to work with the anti-hunger nonprofit Project Bread in order to provide healthy snacks to students as they study.

In addition to the Celtics award, Cohen will be honored as an "Exemplar of Excellence" by Hillel International this month at the 2008 Summit of the University and the Jewish Community in Washington, D.C. Cohen will receive his award from Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow, who is co-chair of this year's summit.

"I am always amazed by people in the Tufts community," Cohen says. "They are so intelligent and always looking to give. I am happy I was able to provide an outlet for them to do so."

 Profile written by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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