NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — This year marks a significant first for Rutgers University.

Fifty-five members of the inaugural class of the Rutgers Future Scholars program are set to graduate from the school this weekend, capping a journey that began when these low-income, first-generation college students were in seventh grade.

The program began in 2008 with the aim to place 215 middle-school students per year from Rutgers’ host communities on the track to higher education, according to the university. Fifty students each from New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark and Camden enroll in the mentoring and college-prep initiative every year—and all stand a chance to get a full-tuition scholarship to Rutgers.

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“Our Scholars, like their peers, have a lot of questions,” the program’s director, Aramis Gutierrez, told Rutgers Today. “ ‘Am I smart enough? Will I fit in? Can I afford it?’ We provide answers by exposing them to college credit courses as early as ninth grade, building a community of likeminded peers and educating them on how to pay for college and apply for scholarships.”

The Class of 2017 began with 183 students. Of them, 163 enrolled in college and other postsecondary institutions. Just short of 100 landed full scholarships to Rutgers.

Ninety percent of Future Scholars enroll in college after graduating high school, according to the university. Seventy percent get acceptance letters from Rutgers, of which half attend.

So far, roughly 1,800 children have become Future Scholars.

The university touts the program as a “life-changing opportunity” designed to boost those whose families lack money and experience in higher education.

“We focus on the ‘if only’ students—those who teachers say could excel if only they had the opportunity or financial means,” Gutierrez said. “Beyond academic aptitude, we look for students with leadership skills or who are engaged in community service.”

Once accepted, Future Scholars take college-credit, in-district classes co-taught by university professors. During summers, the students take on-campus courses taught by Rutgers educators. They also work paid internships during their junior year of high school, according to the university.

Those who attend Rutgers may take a for-credit mentoring course that enables them to teach up-and-coming Future Scholars about time and stress management and course selection.

Taken together, each stage of the program prepares graduates for the world beyond Rutgers, according to the school.

“When I entered the Future Scholars program, I saw all that was possible,” Himang Patel, a Piscataway resident who’s among the first class of graduates, said. “When I got to college, companies took note of me because my involvement in the program and reached out to me for internships. That work helped me succeed beyond my dreams.”

Indeed, Patel is slated to work for Deutsche Bank on Wall Street after graduation.

But the lengthy nature of the program and the trail-blazing tendencies of its participants also build strong bonds.

“This is more than a program,” Athena Torres, who grew up in Camden and is graduating from Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, said. “It is a family.”