Awesome People: Simon Moore - College Visions


Originally appeared in The Phoenix

The story of Janelle Williams is an all-too familiar one: a bright, young woman perfectly capable of going to college, but like so many of her friends, she couldn't help but feel like the deck was stacked against her. She was shut-off-the-gas-poor, attending an underperforming high school ("it sure isn't Classical") and despite living in a crowded household, she had no one she could really turn to for advice.

And then she came to College Visions, the seven-year-old advising program founded by Simon Moore that helps low-income and first-generation college-bound students navigate the treacherous waters of the college application process, from selecting the right schools, to filling out the dreaded financial aid forms, to making the final decision.

Moore grew up in Providence (he went to Classical and played basketball for a year at Brown) and other than the couple of years he spent working in Harlem and the Bronx, "I haven't gone outside of a two-mile radius."

He started College Visions because he saw a clear void when it comes to college advising in Providence public schools. Most schools don't have someone focusing solely on those who need help applying and guidance counselors simply don't have the capacity to meet with students more than a handful of times during their junior and senior years.

That's where College Visions comes in. Funded through private sponsorships and the AmeriCorps VISTA program, the nonprofit's full-time staff of five recruits students for its College Access Program during their junior year. The program is completely free for the students, who meet one-on-one with their adviser every couple of weeks (often much more) to discuss taking the SAT or ACT, filling out applications, writing the essay, and understanding financial aid packages.

It's not all fluffy "you can be whatever you want" or "we'll find a way to pay for it" advising either. As one struggling statistics student found out, staffers have no problem giving it to you straight.

"You need to make a decision," an adviser told the student. "You need to pick a day every week to get extra help. Colleges don't like Ds."

It's that level of honesty and open dialogue that had a half-dozen or so students hanging out in the College Visions office in the Mercantile Block Building on Washington Street well after 6 pm on the Friday night before April vacation. They trust Moore. They trust the staff. They trust the process.

"I wasn't thinking about college at all," Janelle said as she sat in a room lined with school pennants sent in as gifts from College Visions alumni. "I didn't even want to apply. I didn't have any money. But then I started meeting with my adviser here. Now I'm going to show my little brothers they can do it too."

Now Janelle has a decision to make. She has to choose between Salem College and Guilford College, two North Carolina schools well-known for providing maximum financial aid packages, and the University of Rhode Island.

But the support won't end there. College Visions also offers a College Success Program, which helps alumni make the successful transition to college. College Visions advisors mentor students, serve as financial aid advocates, and make sure their charges are able to find work.

The goal of this program, according to Moore, is to help address the most underreported crisis in American education today: the college dropout rate. Research from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education suggests one in three low-income students will enroll in college; just 11 percent of those graduate within six years.

"There are huge consequences for starting college and not finishing," Moore said. "We want our alumni to graduate because it will expand their access to everything. We commit to ensuring they complete college."

They've been wildly successful compared with the national numbers. The first class of College Visions graduates completed the program in 2005. It had ten members. Seven have graduated from college. Two are still enrolled.

This year, Janelle is one of 70 students enrolled in the College Access Program. As a group, they've been accepted to dozens of schools including URI, Rhode Island College, St. John's, and Holy Cross. Another 140 alumni remain active in the College Success Program, which has students at Brown, Boston College, Clark, and George Washington University.

The future for College Visions is as bright as it is for its alumni. Moore said the demand to join the program continues to rise, but while he's open to expansion, he wants to make sure all of his students continue to receive the constant one-on-one advising they deserve.

It always goes back to the students. And for someone who has barely left Providence, Moore has opened doors for so many.

Just ask Janelle.


Awesome People: After 'Black Friday,' a local poker player's lament

Originally appeared in The Phoenix

If you think the only thing on television these days other than those silly P90X infomercials is poker, then you're probably on to something. But that all stands to change, now that the feds handed three popular online poker websites what effectively amounts to a death sentence in the United States.

An end to online poker means an end to all those sponsorships and commercials that make televised tournaments possible. And without those glitzy ads around to lure moms, dads, and the 35-year-old sons who still live with them, the game is likely to revert back to its pre-2003 days, when the only people playing cards regularly were wannabe cowboys and guys named Huck.

Which could mean the very premature end to a potentially lucrative career for one Rhode Islander.

Bill DelSanto doesn't call himself a professional poker player yet. He still wants to sleep with women and finish college and he even works a part-time job at Citizens Bank to stay active. But considering he won $31,087.50 sitting in his bedroom on a single Sunday last May, it's safe to say the 21-year-old is more than a recreational player at this point.

DelSanto estimates poker has provided 90 percent of his spending money since he was a 16-year-old Bishop Hendricken student, when he would sneak into Foxwoods to play cash games for hours at a time. It's rare (and illegal) for someone so young to get their start playing live games in a casino, but he says, "I never wanted to leave a high balance online just in case they picked up and left some day."

When he finally entered the Interzone in earnest, his game took off. With the ability to play in four tournaments at once, he quickly began to master a number of less popular poker games. On television, the game of choice is almost always no-limit Texas hold 'em, but DelSanto prefers H.O.R.S.E., a mixed version of poker that many veterans avoid because of the difficultly.

It was a major online H.O.R.S.E. tournament he was prepared to enter earlier this month when he found out PokerStars had had been shut down to American players.

Players refer to it as "Black Friday."

"The feeling on Black Friday literally felt so depressing that it was numbing," DelSanto says. "I was driving home from work and got a message on Facebook and Twitter about the shutdown and I literally almost crashed."

The founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker were among 11 people indicted on charges of bank fraud and money laundering. The federal government reportedly hopes to recover $3 billion from the companies, which until recently ran commercials alongside every poker tournament on television.

Without the low buy-in qualifying tournaments held online, many poker enthusiasts believe the World Series of Poker, which normally pays over $5 million to the Main Event winner, will suffer from a severe downturn in players. And if the game wanes in popularity, ESPN will likely be the first to pull its support.

But DelSanto remains upbeat about the game he eventually wants to make a career out of.

"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing with a lot more traveling in the picture," he said. "I'm still going to work at the bank, work on my degree, and play poker. I have the World Series of Poker in June and I am looking forward to seeing the world while hopefully amassing a fortune in the process."

For now, though, there is some unintentional irony in the online screen name he used to play under: ItbDone.

Sooner than he ever thought.


Awesome People: The Beer Guy

Originally appeared in The Phoenix

The next time you're chugging that seemingly endless cup of stale Keystone Light following a losing game of beer pong, Patrick McGovern wants you to think of it as a liquid time capsule.

McGovern is one of "maybe 10" molecular archeologists in the world focusing primarily on ancient booze and chocolates, which makes him a hit with a wide variety of crowds, ranging from the Discovery Channel nerds to NPR loyalists to, of course, college students, who believe time isn't wasted when you're getting wasted.

The Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, McGovern was in town this week to present "Uncorking the Past," an hour-long lecture that basically confirmed something you probably already suspected: Greek mythology was likely created under the influence of substances even the Waterman co-op kids can't get their hands on.

McGovern, who has penned two books about his research, said he and his team first discovered a 2700-year-old beverage recipe when excavating the tomb of King Midas in present-day Turkey. The group recovered an Iron Age drinking set and analyzed the chemical fingerprints left on different vessels to identify the ingredients used in the cocktail.

What they learned was that if King Midas and his buddies went on a pub crawl today, they probably would be looking for beer garnished with a lot of fruit. Flavor overload was all the rage in the Persian Empire. The fingerprints contained compounds for tartaric acid (grape wine), beeswax (honey mead) and beer stone (barley, for beer), all in the same drink.

In other words, the Persians drank jungle juice too!

Furthermore, if you've ever poured out a little liquor for your homeboys and girls, you'll be happy to know it wasn't Ice Cube who came up with this novel idea. McGovern explained that when King Midas died, his supporters threw a party and also shared the booze with their fallen comrade. You know, so he wouldn't haunt them.

McGovern eventually brought his findings to a variety of brewers hoping someone might be able to take the recipe and concoct something even remotely enjoyable to drink. Ultimately, Delaware-based Dogfish Head prevailed, creating a 9% ABV beer appropriately named Midas Touch.

Dogfish Head, which recently announced its products would no longer be available in Rhode Island, sponsored a tasting of Midas Touch and two other McGovern discoveries at the Brown Graduate Center Bar following the lecture.

Although McGovern billed Midas Touch as recreated for a king, it tasted more like something you would offer to an undergrad who "doesn't like the taste of beer." Yet. It was sweeter and fruitier than the beer you're probably used to, but not as sugar-filled as a Smirnoff Ice, which only pussies drink anyway.

The other drinks offered were Chateau Jiahu, which tasted like a combination of sweet boxed wine and flat beer, and Theobroma, a delicious mixture of chilies and cocoa powder that appeared to be the most popular in the room.

The recipe for Chateau Jiahu, according to McGovern, was inspired by a drink found in China 9000 years ago, which explains why the bottle features a seductive looking Asian woman with a tramp stamp on the label. The Theobroma has its origins in Honduras, which is believed to be the birthplace of chocolate-based alcoholic drinks.

These ancient brews can be tough on the modern drinker's palate. Plenty of "bitter beer faces" proved that right away.

But hey, King Midas probably wouldn't have any love for Keystone Light.


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