Breaking Down College Barriers: Breakthrough Twin Cities

By Genna Maxwell

“Eight years ago, I was a Cambodian shepherd, a little boy who was separated from his farm and cattle and who came to America. Lost.  A little fish in a big new pond, working hard to break out of the life I had been born into, the life of poverty,” Roumany Phan reflected. “Then a miracle happened.  I found an open channel into new water.  I found Breakthrough Saint Paul, a lifelong family, and an unfailing support system.”  

Roumany, a Gates Millennium scholarship winner, shared this remarkable story at his graduation from Breakthrough, a program which, when his non-English speaking relatives couldn’t offer advice on college, became his second family as he pursued higher education opportunities. 

Breakthrough Twin Cities (formerly Breakthrough Saint Paul), helps motivated students overcome adversity to prepare for college by using a "Students Teaching Students" model of education. College-bound students are supported by passionate older college or high school students through classes, enrichment activities, and 1-1 support. Students and families that enroll in this tuition-free program make a six-year, year-round commitment.  

Walking through the halls of Breakthrough’s main campus at Mounds Park Academy, you find lockers covered with reminders of the program’s core values: be grateful, strive to understand, live the growth mindset, relish hard work together, persist, be curious and be Breakthrough.  Questions are also posted for the students to answer each day for points; for example, “How many times a year do you have to renew your FAFSA?” Executive Director Amy Stolpestad explains, “We create a culture where it is cool to be smart—a college-going culture.”   

In addition to sharing the goal of graduating from a four-year college or university, students are expected to follow a number of other requirements, like taking honors courses, having a respectful, “Strictly Positive” attitude, completing “Boo-Yah!” homework hours, being involved in extracurricular activities, and applying for scholarships. Breakthrough students participate the summer before seventh grade through the end of their senior year of high school. 

The college and older high school students who serve as instructors in the program also benefit from the opportunity to explore their talents and try their hand at teaching; many of the prospective teachers are Breakthrough graduates themselves. These student instructors are supervised by instructional coaches, all of whom are professional educators. 

As for Roumany, he’s off to the University of Saint Thomas on a full scholarship and hopes to study engineering. Breakthrough “changed me in every single way,” he says.  “I believe in and challenge myself, especially in education, and have a drive for what I believe in.”  

Breakthrough Twin Cities is now accepting applications from current sixth grade students. For more information, visit their program page on the Sprockets Program Finder and apply by February 5, 2014!