Before/After: Oliver Scholars Program Space

December 4, 2013 | Alex

Later this week, I'm planning to share some photos from my trip to Iceland. But today, I wanted to make a slight detour from regular programming to talk about a small, educational access organization that my mom (and Common Bond partner!), Sherry, has been deeply involved with for years.

If you live in New York City, you're probably accustomed to hearing about the state of our public school system-- especially in this mayoral election year.  It's a complicated and controversial issue, but nearly everyone can agree that it's in very rough shape.

Unfortunately, the way New York's demographics shake out, the weaknesses of the public school system have a disproportionally large effect on African American and Latino communities. And while fixing the system needs to be the long-term goal, what happens to promising students who pass through schools during the years in which change is underway?


The Oliver Scholars Program identifies and engages extraordinary New York City students of African and Latino descent and prepares them for success at leading independent high schools and prestigious colleges. The Program is a real "soup-to-nuts" operation (my term-- not theirs) that:

  • actively seeks out bright, highly motivated applicants from middle schools (public, parochial, or charter) in each of NYC's five boroughs who may not have access to the curriculum and resources that they need to reach their full potential;
  • educates the Scholars and their families on independent school alternatives for high school;
  • guides Scholars through the rigorous application process for independent high schools (both day and boarding schools in the Northeast);
  • coordinates peer tutoring and mentoring throughout high school; 
  • counsels Scholars and their families through the college application process; and,
  • negotiates financial assistance packages at the high school and college level. 

My favorite aspect of the Oliver Scholars Program is the emphasis on giving back. Oliver Scholars are required to contribute a huge portion of their free time to performing community service, which often includes mentoring and tutoring younger Scholars. The idea is not only to embed a sustainable mentorship component, but also to create a generation of leaders who believe in the importance of giving back to their communities. That's how Oliver serves individuals directly, by facilitating access to independent education for the Scholars, and the broader communities indirectly, by fostering a generation of leaders committed to the importance of education. As you can imagine, the Program fosters a very close-knit group of alumni who continue to provide each other with support well past college and into their lives as young professionals.

So that's the Oliver Scholars Program in a nutshell! But since this is, after all, a design blog, I've got a pretty cool before/after for you.

Oliver's headquarters is in a ho-hum office high-rise in the financial district. While the facility was perfectly adequate for the organization's administrative needs, the staff wanted to create a space that was a welcoming hang-out for Scholars to study, mentor and tutor. They also wanted to spruce up their conference room to hold events, like networking opportunities for young alumni of the Program, and board meetings.

While I don't have a true "before" picture, here's what the space looked like when construction started:

OSP Conference Room - Before (1).jpg

The Program prides itself on the percentage of donations that go directly to helping Oliver Scholars (i.e. they keep their overhead very low), so the conference room makeover was done on a shoe-string budget. The board members brought in NYC interior designer Tim Macdonald, who generously donated his time. Macdonald came up with some brilliant low-cost ideas and drew upon his industry connections to collect remnants and donated finishes at no cost to the Program.

Here's the space after Macdonald worked his magic:


Pretty impressive transformation given budgetary constraints, huh? Macdonald reused the conference room's existing tables, which although quite basic, were very practical when it came to flexibility. Put together, they created a board room table. Apart and up against the walls, they served as buffets and drink bars for networking events. The windows were outfitted with wood blinds, the walls were wallpapered with a very subtle pattern and texture, and the carpeting and chairs were replaced to bring in a note of blue. My favorite feature of the makeover, I think, is the coat of grey paint on the industrial office building radiators. That rich grey gives them a sort of gravitas, doesn't it? I also like the Warhol-inspired student art work hanging to the left of the windows.

The finished space was dedicated to Judith-Ann Corrente, former chair of the board, for her many years of dedicated service to the organization. I can think of no more perfect way to honor her legacy than a warm welcoming space for Oliver Scholars, their families, and Program staff to convene to celebrate Scholars' accomplishment and work to advance the Programs' mission.

I hope you enjoyed this Before/After. To learn more about the Oliver Scholars Program or to make a donation, visit their website!