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Ashley Thomas, a Harlem native and senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, never thought she'd end up in the Midwest.

When she started looking for schools, she was interested in diversity. But according to UW's website, over 70% of the school's students identify as white.

So, why did Ashley choose UW?


Because of a hip-hop and urban arts program called First Wave. UW is the only school in the country with anything like it.

UW-Madison senior and First Wave member Ashley Thomas. Photo courtesy of Ashley Thomas.

Providing about 14 full, four-year scholarships per year, the First Wave program targets incoming freshmen who have a passion for the program's three pillars: arts, academics, and activism.

The First Wave program was launched 10 years ago by Willie Ney, the executive director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative. He was troubled by the lack of diversity at the school and wanted to find a way to reach students like Ashley — talented in both arts and academics — who weren't considering UW-Madison.

"If you complain about something, you have to do something about it," Ney said in a phone interview. So, in 2005, he worked with the school to find room in the budget. The goal was for First Wave students to attend the university and graduate with little to no debt.

Willie Ney. Photo courtesy of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative.

"This is an experiment," he said.

So far, it seems like a pretty successful one. Ney says they're bringing in amazing students from all over the country.

First Wave students can pursue any major they want, but Ney says they tend to gravitate toward science and social justice studies. Ashley, for example, is majoring in social work with a focus on community organization and theater. But it's her passion for and skill in poetry that helped land her in the program.

The First Wave Touring Ensemble poses after their performance at the NCAA National Convention in San Diego 2014. From left: Eli Lynch, Shamaeca Moore, Marvin Gutierrez, Ashlyn Akins, and Jonathan Williams. Photo courtesy of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative.

In addition to their regular classes, First Wave students take workshops on subjects like music, poetry, and acting, and they discuss issues related to race, culture, and identity.

The goal of addressing these topics head-on isn't just to ease the transition to UW; it's to get a real dialogue going.

In a 2013 performance at UW-Madison, First Wave students performed a spoken-word piece called "Intersectionality" in which they tackled perceptions of identity:

"Where I'm from, I never had to explain myself," said First Wave student Thiahera Nurse. "My name came out of the cracks of the concrete like air. It was as normal as reading a street sign."

Thiahera Nurse performing. Image via creatingcommunityUW/YouTube.

Another First Waver, Amy Riedel, asked: "Why can't gay marriage just be marriage or an interracial couple just a couple? There is more power when we include all our differences than when we separate."

First Wave students don't just work their magic on campus, either. In 2012, students — on their own initiative — started teaching workshops for local high schoolers as part of the JVN Project (in honor of student John "Vietnam" Nguyễn, who passed away earlier that year). The workshops use hip-hop music, rapping, poetry, and writing to help teach students the importance of community, teamwork, compassion, and creativity.

"The impact is really big in the community," Ney said.

And the impact on the students is big, too.

"I would not be here if it were not for First Wave," Ashley said.

She says cost and diversity were issues for her everywhere she looked, but UW-Madison would have been out of the question without the program.

First Wave graduate Sofia Snow. Image from uwmadison/YouTube.

First Wave students have gone on to do some incredible things.

Ney says many graduates continue with arts and activism. Sofia Snow, part of the initial class of First Wave students, is now the associate program director for Urban Word NYC, a program dedicated to helping youth in New York City to succeed through spoken word and college prep workshops.

The next generation of graduates is just as promising. "I hope to open my own theater company in Harlem," Ashley said. She plans to attend grad school for theater and combine her studies to help students in Harlem express themselves through spoken word and acting.

Ney hopes other schools will follow in their example from First Wave to create better opportunities for students.

"If you tap into this gold mine, it'll be a renaissance in higher education," Ney said. "Why not invest in the best and the brightest?"

Watch a video about the First Wave program:

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