Riverhead college prep students say they owe it all to Patrick Harris

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Patrick Harris, who runs the College Prep program at Riverhead High School, said students in that program received more than$3 million in scholarship offers this year. Here, he congratulates one of them, his son, Justin, at Thursday's College Prep Awards Ceremony.

Riverhead High School senior Corrine Matlak said she’ll be the first member of her family to go to college next fall. She admits that when she started applying to colleges, she had “no idea” what she was doing.

She recalled thinking, “I have to pay for an application fee? Are you kidding me?”

During her junior year, Corrine said, she enrolled in the high school’s college prep program, run by Patrick Harris.

Mr. Harris assured her that she’d get into her “dream school,” Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

“Mr. Harris pushed me through so much,” she said. “He gave me all these different schools to try out.”

And as it turned out, she was accepted to Lehigh, but the tuition there was $52,000 per year.

“Mr. Harris told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll get in,’ ” she said.

A few weeks later, when Corrine got home from work at about 10:30 p.m., a letter regarding financial aid was waiting for her.
“I open that letter, and I’m going for free,” she recalled. She had received a full four-year scholarship to Lehigh and would have to pay only for a meal plan, which was about $1,000 per year.

And Corrine is not alone.

Students in the college prep program at Riverhead High School received more than $3 million in academic scholarship offers this year, according to Mr. Harris, who’s been the program’s coordinator for the past four years.

This year, about 100 students enrolled in the program, including about 50 seniors, Mr. Harris said. Of those students, 22 received scholarship offers ranging from $40,000 to $400,000, he said.

Students say Mr. Harris is constantly on the phone with colleges trying to get them accepted, and works constantly with students to improve their chances. He even takes them on tours of colleges and follows up with program participants once they’re in college, students say.

In addition to winning scholarships, 17 college prep students made the National Honor Society this year, and eight of them ranked in the top 15 in the senior class.

The program held its awards ceremony last Thursday to honor those students, and it was there that Corrine and other students spoke.

“You guys all have your own stories about how incredible it feels to get in to your dream school and how you can’t thank Mr. Harris enough for doing all the phone calls and the emails and the texting and whatever else he does,” Corrine told students Thursday. “It’s the best feeling in the world, especially coming from a situation like mine, where you’re not really rolling in the money, and you’re kind of nervous and you’re the first one in your family to be going to college and you have no idea what you’re talking about.

“Mr. Harris knows exactly what he’s talking about and I cannot thank him enough, because I am now going to Lehigh for astrophysics for free for four years.”

“Mr. Harris, you’re my savior,” said senior Malyk Leonard, who moved back to Riverhead after living in South Carolina for four years. He recalled having Mr. Harris as a football coach when he was younger.

“When I came up here in the middle of October, in the middle of the application season, I figured I’d just go to Suffolk [Community College],” Malyk recalled. He then met with Mr. Harris and got involved in the college prep program.

“He told me this program is only for people who work,” Malyk recalled, saying that he began applying to other colleges.
“Because of Mr. Harris, I’m going to Stony Brook on a full ride,” he said. “Without you, none of this would be possible.”

Mr. Harris, a 1983 Riverhead High School graduate, a former Marine and longtime coach of the Riverhead Raiders youth football team, said students often have to give up a free period to participate in the program. He said he tries to map out at least 10 schools for each student to apply to.

“Once students understand they have an opportunity, then they are at the steering wheel of their own academic success,” Mr. Harris said. “You only have to give them the road map, and they are going to do some outstanding things with their lives.”

Riverhead graduate Kymberlee Stevens, who’s now a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University, said, “If I didn’t have Mr. Harris to help me through everything, I probably would have struggled throughout the whole application process and left things out. He helped me with things I didn’t even know about.”

The college prep program has operated in the high school for about 12 years and was run by Donna Vestal until Mr. Harris took over.

“I love my job,” Mr. Harris said. “All my students are like my kids. Every year, I have about 100 kids.”

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