URI’s Sharon Forleo: Patience, love, and plenty of talent
Talent Development Program welcomes its largest freshmen class
KINGSTON, R.I. –July 29, 2005---The first time Sharon Forleo (then Reynolds) applied to be a part-time tutor for the University of Rhode Island’s Talent Development Program, she was rejected. Not one to be deterred, she kept trying.
In 1974, she was granted an interview with Rev. Arthur Hardge who co-founded the program with Leo DiMaio in 1968 in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The program is designed to give students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to attend URI.
At the time of the interview Forleo was a long-term substitute, teaching English to ninth grade boys with behavioral problems.
Asked if she enjoyed her work, she replied: “All they need is a little patience and lots of love.” Hardge hired her on the spot.
Today, Forleo is associate director of TD, as the program is affectionately called. The program, which began with 13 students, is welcoming 288 freshmen this fall, the largest class in its history.
Forleo was named the 2005 YWCA Outstanding Woman for promotion of economic empowerment for women for all of her work with the URI program. “I’m so fortunate because what I do and what I believe are the same,” she says. “Not everyone can say that about their job. Talent Development is such a unique program. Look at the longevity of it. Similar programs that began at the same time are all gone because the intent and funding have all dried up. TD just keeps getting stronger.”
Forleo is in charge of the residential summer program, in which TD freshmen must earn six college credits with a “C” or higher. While most TD students do well in high school, SATs are the real hurdle. Without the support of the TD program, these students would never be accepted into college.
“There’s so much joy in it,” the Foster resident says. “I see such an enormous change in just six weeks. I get to see them grow.”
Forleo relates easily to the students. Her father died when she was 3 and her mother didn’t work until she was 10. Growing up in affluent Barrington, she felt like an outsider. “I know what it is to be marginalized,” she says. She never thought about college, until a guidance counselor forced her to apply to URI, from which she graduated with an English degree in 1972.
She met her husband, Frank Forleo, assistant director of TD, in a 1975 staff orientation meeting. The two grandparents-to-be have worked side-by-side ever since.
“I don’t know if I could have gotten through without her help,” says Persjha Conry, a 2005 URI alumna who is a counselor in the summer program. One of six children, Conry said she didn’t speak until she was 10. “It was about everything I was seeing,” she says. Her mother died when she was 17. Her father was addicted to drugs. Violence permeated her Pawtucket neighborhood. For example, she never went to her high school prom, because her date was shot. When she first arrived at the University, she was overwhelmed with paperwork. Forleo made it easy. “She was always there for me, always willing to hear me, even about some rough stuff in my personal life. And she wasn’t afraid to kick me in the butt, when I needed it to be kicked.”
This is the fourth year, Mike DiGioia, a 1997 political science alumnus, has been a counselor for the summer program. “I credit my success to Sharon,” the third year law student says. “She stuck by me and gave me the stability I never had.” DiGioia admits to being rebellious and opposed to authority growing up in Bristol and at URI. “I wanted nothing to do with Sharon, nothing to do with Talent Development, and nothing to do with the University.” He recalls being in Forleo’s office and saying that he wanted to get out of there. Forleo responded: “Oh, do you want to study abroad?” “She helped me grow,” he says. “Academically and spiritually.”
Forleo says she doesn’t have any favorites, past or present students. “The most important student is the one that’s sitting in front of me. I want to know what that student needs and what I can do to help.”