On first-year student Sara Corchado’s right arm she has a tattoo of a codfish, a nod to a time that changed her life.
For Corchado, 21, the codfish tells the story of her journey, one that led her to the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy (GBA), working at MIT, and has now landed her at Salem State University where she has recently completed the Summer Bridge academy and began her first semester as a college student.
Corchado’s journey to Salem State began in 2016 during her junior year of high school when false allegations took a toll on her wellbeing and GPA.
Prior to the accusations, Corchado was an active student: she was class treasurer for her high school’s e-board, served as vice president of events and promotions for the theatre department, and was asked by her principal to take part in the school’s Anti-Defamation League training.
Corchado said, “It was a leadership training on how to not be a bystander. How not to be a bully and how to intervene and recognize different situations from Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia to racism in the hallways.”
Corchado utilized her bystander intervention training in an online chat between theatre department students when the group began to heavily criticize a student who had left the conversation. After standing up for her classmate, Corchado was shocked to learn she was being accused of just the opposite.
Corchado said, “Seconds later I received a phone call from one of the students’ mom saying, ‘I’m bringing you to court.’”
Despite trying to do the right thing, Corchado was summoned to court and tried by a judge. Though her charges were eventually dropped, she lost friends, lost her position on the e-board as class treasurer, dropped the theatre program, and had difficulty completing her schoolwork. At the time of the accusations, Corchado was also dealing with her first real break-up and the death of a childhood friend.
Corchado said, “I’m surprised I’m crying. I’ve been able to talk about this for years now, but this was huge. I had a harassment prevention order placed on me.”
Corchado stopped attending school as an effort to stay away from the accuser and those who didn’t believe her. Corchado said, “I had to distance myself from things, how do you grow in a place that’s so dark?”
With support from a close friend and staff and faculty from her high school, she graduated in 2017, but by the skin of her teeth. Due to her low GPA, Corchado didn’t apply to any traditional higher education institutions right away. Instead, she entered the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy (GBA), a vocational program that prepares students to be biotech lab technicians and offered a free pilot program at the time.
“It’s not so much school as it was job training,” Corchado said. “At GBA you’re trained to be an entry-level lab technician. They flip the script, offering mostly labs and minimal lectures.”
The nine-month-long program was centered on a codfish. Corchado said, “You start by extracting DNA from a strawberry with household materials and work up to extracting DNA and protein from a codfish using real laboratory-grade reagents and materials. We went as far as cell culture and sequencing a gene found in the codfish’s DNA. I couldn’t believe I was doing this cutting edge science right out of high school.”
After GBA’s protein semester, students were required to complete a semester-long internship and Corchado was granted an opportunity in MIT’s James Collins Lab.
Corchado graduated valedictorian from GBA, received GBA’s first Zhu-Millman Scholar Award, and was hired by MIT to work in the lab full-time in June 2018. Though grateful for the opportunity, Corchado became overwhelmed with her lack of fundamental knowledge a few months into her new position.
Corchado said, “The project I was on was so advanced. On top of learning new lab techniques and reading publications, I was missing the theory necessary to fully know what I was doing. That’s when I realized I needed to go to school.” Soon after, she began applying to universities in the fall of 2018.
“I applied to a number of schools and was denied from most, waitlisted at one, but accepted here at Salem State. I applied here during the free period from October to November 15 just to see if I could get in.”
John Doyle, GBA’s education director who noticed Corchado’s potential, informed her of an agreement allowing GBA students to transfer credits to Salem State.
“I realized I have these credits and I would earn a 4.0 GPA. That’s when I checked the portal and I was accepted under the condition that I go to Summer Bridge Academy,” said Corchado. “I wasn’t upset that I didn’t get into the other schools anymore.”
Summer Bridge Academy (SBA) is an alternative admissions program Salem State offers that aids high school graduates in achieving academic success in college by giving them the tools, resources, and support they need throughout their academic careers.
This past summer, Corchado enrolled in the SBA program and moved to Salem State, bringing the same energy she had at GBA and MIT with her. Corchado said, “I knew that coming into Summer Bridge I had to be serious. I kept my head in the books.”
When Corchado wasn’t studying alone, she was helping other students. Corchado said, “I would host study sessions in the lounges. I had a group of women that got 4.0, 3.9., 3.8 GPAs. We were motivating each other and that is one thing they advertised about the Bridge Academy; that you’ll find your friends, people that want to be better. To all of a sudden have a group of women I am so closely knitted with, I feel completely transformed.”
Corchado's drive, newfound sense of community and support she received from Salem State’s TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) all contributed to her success during SBA and to the start of her first semester, which she began as a chemistry major with a 4.0 GPA.
Ivan Pina, a coordinator of student development in Student Support Services (SSS), and Martine Francois, director of TRIO SSS, helped Corchado meet her academic goals during SBA and prepare her for the road to graduation ahead of her.
“Ivan and I established goals, we discussed how I was going to get there, and what I am going to do. I had a distinct plan, an agenda. I was hyper prepared,” Corchado said. “Martine really helped me understand chemistry because the way she taught made sense to me. I felt super prepared going into the semester. Martine shares the same appreciation for education that I do and she always hypes me up to be better. Because of her guidance, I got a 93 on my first test and a 97 on my first lab. I am so grateful for TRIO.”
Once, GBA’s Education Director John Doyle asked Corchado what inspires her. She replied, “I just want to be better than I was yesterday.”
Salem State TRIO Student Support Services