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An Investment in Students is an Investment in Communities: Community Leader Spotlight with Nancy Leopold

Turning dreams of college into reality is the foundation of CollegeTracks’ work, a nonprofit organization that helps students manage the challenges of the college experience so they persist, graduate, and find a path that allows them to achieve independence, support families, and give back to the community.

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Nancy Leopold co-founded CollegeTracks in 2003 and became its executive director in 2006. She has overseen its growth from a volunteer program serving 40-60 students each year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to an independent nonprofit with 18 staff members and 80 volunteers. The organization collaborates with Montgomery County Public Schools to serve more than 1100 high school and college students who attend Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Wheaton, and Watkins Mill High Schools each year.

America’s Promise Alliance heard from Leopold about what excites her in the field—and what challenges her. Take a look at her answers below:

Q: What work in your community are you most excited about right now?

A: This school year we helped about 850 high school juniors and seniors apply to college and get enough financial aid to attend. And we worked with 350 college students to help them persist and graduate. We’ve proved the model works and are successfully expanding to a third Montgomery County high school—and we look forward to serving more schools in the future.

CollegeTracks students are turning into model county citizens. One of our students now works at Capital One as a software engineer and was able to buy his family a house. When I hear great news like this, it speaks volumes to the work that we are doing.

Q: What keeps you doing this work?

A: It is an honor to help young people take steps to continue their education and get themselves on pathways that will lead to rewarding careers and lives. By 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require higher education and training beyond high school. The low-income, often first-gen-to-college students CollegeTracks serves are at great risk of not getting higher education, simply because they have no adults in their lives with experience in the American higher education system.  

It’s a complicated, arduous process to get admitted to college with enough financial aid and then there are many barriers to graduation. We help students get through that gauntlet and succeed. That’s good for them and for the county’s economy. Most importantly, I continue doing this work because when we fail to invest in our students, we are putting their individual future’s at risk as well as the future of our community.

CollegeTracks student alum with Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Nancy Leopold
CollegeTracks student alum with Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Nancy Leopold

Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?

A: Every student, regardless of his/her grades and test scores, has the potential to succeed at the right college or technical school, and they have the right to that opportunity. We’ve also learned if we want students to succeed in life we must focus on the phenomenal assets they have to offer, not the adversities they face because they are more than their obstacles. They are students with aspirations, determination, insights, strength, and resilience.

Q: What are the top three words that describe the biggest challenges to your work?

      Resources

      Awareness                                                      

      Dwindling Financial Aid