By Bryan Hay
In his sixth year as director of the Cathedral Scholars Program at Washington National Cathedral, Joseph Peralta ’09 derives daily inspiration observing how the high school students he mentors discover the power to grow into leaders and make meaningful changes in themselves and their communities.
One of the National Cathedral’s most important community outreach programs, the Cathedral Scholars Program helps college-bound first-generation students in public and charter schools achieve success in postsecondary education. It was founded in 1997 by former Cathedral Dean Nathan D. Baxter and St. Albans School Headmaster Emeritus Jack McCune as a means for the Cathedral to use its resources—especially those of its schools—to serve the District of Columbia’s underrepresented, promising high school students of good character.
Since the start of the program, which offers structured workshops, academic support, presentations, advising, and mentoring, nearly 300 high school students in the Washington, D.C., area have gone on to colleges and universities.
Peralta understood and recognized the important work of the Cathedral Scholars Program when he served as a trainer with the Posse Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for students to attend partner colleges and universities, including Lafayette.
“I was familiar with Cathedral Scholars from a different perspective and used to recruit Posse Scholars from their program,” he says. “I saw the good work from the outside. Now that I’m leading the program, I’m privileged to do a bit more outreach to slowly grow the program and expand support for the program beyond the cathedral itself to help students become leaders in their community someday.”
Peralta follows a straightforward, unabashed strategy to raise awareness about the program and recruit students by directly contacting high school principals and guidance counselors.
“Many times, I just wait in the main office until they can see me,” he says with a smile. “The goal is for them to put a face to the organization. I have found this approach to be the most helpful. During meetings with guidance counselors or principals, I give them my message about what we are as a program, what we’re trying to do. And the real message I want them to have when I leave that office is that we’re a team that wants to see the best for students that we work with.”
Cathedral Scholars seeks to recruit students who Peralta describes as being in “the middle bandwidth,” those who are completing their homework, the C-plus, B average students who are just going through the motions to get by.
“We tell guidance counselors that we’re looking for students in this bandwidth who may be overlooked in the school, because the school is providing additional support to those who are just struggling and being challenged by the transition from middle school to high school or the providing opportunities to students who are excelling in high school,” he says.
“We want to work with those students. We want to help them and hold their hand through their high school journey and make them into potential superstars,” Peralta adds. “It’s great for us that we can say that 100% of our scholars who complete our program graduate on time. And we also want to make sure that they have that same success when they go off to college or their postsecondary institution.”
More often than not, that message results in opportunities for Peralta to speak with ninth graders or groups of ninth graders who school leaders preselect to apply for the Cathedral Scholars Program.
Students are accepted based on demographics and their responses to questions about their interests, hobbies, and career aspirations, plus two essay questions that ask them to describe what impact they want to leave at their high school and to define what it means to be a scholar.
“We’re asking them to be thinkers,” Peralta says. “I tell them not to Google it. We want them to put it in their own words. What does that word mean? How do you see yourself as a scholar? We want to make sure that they’re painting themselves in a positive light, whether they see themselves as a scholar or not.”
A panel reviews the applications, conducts interviews, and provides feedback.
“We see this as an opportunity for them to learn and grow as young adults, to prepare them for the workforce whether they have a strong application or not,” Peralta says, noting that the interviews, usually conducted in person, have been done over Zoom during the pandemic.
“We make sure that this is an easy, convenient process,” he says. “We come to them. We don’t want them to jump through any hurdles, as many of them are already taking multiple buses and trains to get to their school every day.”
Interviews last about 15-20 minutes, and students are asked a range of questions about their families and responsibilities at home. Another question might coax a story about an annoying sibling, all of it aimed at “getting their juices flowing and making them feel comfortable,” Peralta notes.
Conversations then turn to teamwork and what that means, what kind of leader the students want to become, academic interests, and areas where they see room for growth.
“It becomes a very fluid conversation with students,” Peralta says. “I’m always proud that they’re able to sit down with members of our board and just have an honest conversation. We try our best to make sure that they see this as a real opportunity for us to get to know them beyond their application. It’s great to see those moments where students at that age understand the importance of opportunities that are presented to them, and then see them take it seriously.”
Final decisions are made by the end of April each year. Cathedral Scholars accepts 15-16 students a year and mentors them throughout their high school years and helps them get into college. A centerpiece of the Cathedral Scholarship experience is a six-week summer institute where students receive auxiliary courses on academic success, English, math, and SAT test preparation. Additionally, they can enroll in internships, perform community service, engage in leadership activities, and attend college visits.
Originally from Queens, N.Y., Peralta, a first-generation student himself at Lafayette, now considers Washington, D.C., home.
“When you see these children, I have one of my own, and you see the importance of education, I think it just refocuses your goals and what you want to do personally,” he says. “It pushes me into another gear about how I can continue to support the education system here in D.C., even with a small program that the cathedral has. But every little bit helps, and I think that’s something everyone needs to remember.”
Peralta, who graduated with degrees in international affairs and anthropology & sociology and holds a master’s in education policies studies from George Washington University, also calls Lafayette home, a place that grew on him with each 90-minute trip from New York City, through the Holland Tunnel and across New Jersey to College Hill.
“I have friendships that continue to this day. I met my wife (Dr. Thao “Liz” Nguyen ’07) there,” he says. “What Lafayette taught me, beyond academics, was critical thinking and how to approach a challenge from different perspectives and how to deal with everyday issues and the real world.
“Not everyone looks like me, not everyone has my same experience,” Peralta adds. “But knowing how we can come together and work for a common goal for the common good, that’s what Lafayette has given to me.”
Working for the common good can manifest itself in the simplest of gestures, like handing a promising teenager a business card and a chance for a brighter future.
“It’s about reaching a young middle schooler, you know, just having that conversation about what it means to do the things you love because you worked hard during middle school, high school, and college,” Peralta says. “You know that small conversation can make a big impact.”