Students at Montclair State University with personal struggles can find more than just a major when they become part of the Red Hawk Fellows program. Many of these students come to not only study, socialize and make memories, but also to find a program that will benefit their needs. Established in 2015, Red Hawk Fellows provides much-needed assistance for students lacking family support.
Durell Clark, an experienced social worker who serves as the student services support case manager, helps oversee the program that provides resources to engage student involvement on campus and in career building services.
“Students in the program do not have access to parental support,” Clark said. “The program provides students with the necessary tools to succeed at Montclair State University.”
In previous years the organization, formerly known as the Red Hawk Royalty Program, only assisted students who had been through foster care. In 2015, it was renamed to the Red Hawk Fellows Program and began to help students ages 18 to 24 who identify as independent, homeless or emancipated, as well as those aging out of the foster care system. Each year, student enrollment increases by 15%.
Yolanda Alvarez, associate dean of students, describes her role in overseeing teams and functions within the Office of the Dean of Students.
“I love being a part of initiatives like this and others that support members of our student community to build a strong future,” Alvarez said.
Although she helps out with the program, she credits Clark for taking the lead on overseeing the Red Hawk Fellows Program.
“I support Mr. Clark and others as needed,” Alvarez said. “The program is dedicated to helping undergraduate scholars who need additional support where no immediate parental or extended family guidance is readily accessible and the campus is a community that strives to help students.”
Chris Pritti, a sophomore film student, is involved with the program.
“When I was six years old, my mom, my brother and my sister and myself moved to Pennsylvania,” Pritti said. “When we were in Pennsylvania, my mom ended up getting married and that didn’t last too long like every other marriage story, it seems, nowadays.”
After his parents got divorced, Pritti, his mother and his siblings ended up in a homeless shelter.
“We had to move into the homeless shelter because we didn’t have a place to stay,” Pritti said. “Most of our family was in South Jersey and we were the only ones in Pennsylvania.”
Pritti is one of the students who lacks a stable family environment. His father does not play an active role in his life after the separation of his parents when he was six-years-old. Throughout the years, the 19-year-old has dealt with homelessness, lack of parental guidance and being raised by his aunt and uncle.
He is currently raised by his aunt, after having been through many tragic losses, starting with the death of his grandmother when he was 11, then his grandfather three years later and his uncle in 2016.
Pritti has been involved with the program since his freshman year. With the help of Jherel Saunders-Dittimus, the former president of the Student Government Association, he was informed about the program. After Pritti reached out to Clark, they developed a connection.
“I was talking to [Saunders-Dittimus] about a financial situation that I had,” Pritti said. “He suggested that I should reach out to Mr. Clark, which I did. Then Mr. Clark helped me with the situation and invited me to become a part of the Red Hawk Fellows.”
According to the program’s annual report, nearly 160 students are enrolled in the organization, most of whom are sophomores from Essex County, New Jersey. While many come from the Garden State, others come from states as close as New York and as far as California.
Red Hawk Fellows also provides a combination of social support, programming, fun and academic support. During the semester, Clark and Alvarez organize private events for the students.The program also provides students with necessities such as personal hygiene products, bed sheets and water bottles.
In 2019, there were 50 foster students, 20 homeless students and three emancipated students enrolled in the program. Overall, more than 53 emancipated foster students, 21 unaccompanied homeless students and 120 students lacking parental supervision have successfully completed the program.
The program’s main objective is to help students build self-confidence and life skills through resources, such as career and leadership development, financial management and summer housing, as well as personal and academic development opportunities. Alvarez explains how the program builds tangible skills to help students now and beyond.
“The activities focus on building problem-solving skills and empowering students to utilize their gifts,” Alvarez said. “Our Red Hawk Fellows are resilient, which will serve them well in the pursuit of their personal goals.”
In order to qualify for enrollment in the program, students must be enrolled full-time by taking a minimum of 12 credits. They must also be under the age of 24 in order to identify as independent by the Department of Education.
Pritti says this program has helped him become more involved on campus and build a community with other students in similar situations as he was. It has also made him embrace his future goals to become a filmmaker.
“My main goal is to just become the greatest person that I can possibly be for the people around me,” Pritti said. “I’m on the path to becoming one of the greatest filmmakers and storytellers of all time.”