Julissa Mota can recall the exact moment when squash — the preppy racquet sport — entered her consciousness.
Visitors had stopped by Julissa's fifth-grade class at M.D. Fox School, a neighborhood school in Hartford's South End. Capitol Squash, an urban squash program, was new and recruiting kids in 2014, so the executive director brought along a coach and a big blue box with racquets inside for the children to pass around.
"She told us all about Capitol Squash and that college was an opportunity for us," Julissa, 14, recounted. "And then she said, 'Guess how much this costs?' I still remember this. And I thought I had to pay something so I was like, oh, nevermind. I kind of just fell back. And then she said, 'Nothing! It costs nothing!'"
Julissa was one of the first children to try out for Capitol Squash, which is modeled after similar initiatives in other U.S. cities. Intrigued by the fast-paced game and allure of college, Julissa and Capitol Squash teammates such as Ku Paw get squash instruction on the Trinity College courts, as well as after-school tutoring and mentoring.
The first recruits are now entering high school. Julissa has become a nationally-ranked junior squash player and will begin ninth grade on a full scholarship at a $61,000-a-year boarding school in Connecticut.
Ku, a 15-year-old refugee from Thailand who arrived in Hartford when she was seven, is also headed to an elite private high school on scholarship — just a few years after learning the sport.
"I thought it was like racquetball," Ku said, "but it was completely different."
Squash is a global game, but in the U.S., it's a sport primarily associated with white players. Squash courts tend to be located at private schools and members-only clubs.
"The elite, affluent communities … have access to squash, and unfortunately it hasn't been a super accessible sport for most people," said Meg Taylor, executive director of Capitol Squash. "I mean, it's a prep school sport."
Julissa, who is Mexican-American, said the opportunities she has now would have been out of reach without squash. Her mother cleans offices. Ku's mom is a factory worker and her dad works at Dunkin' Donuts.
When low-income city students get the chance to learn squash for free, it can open up a gateway into the exclusive world of boarding schools. Why? Those prep schools are often in the hunt for good squash talent to round out their teams, Taylor said.
When Paul Assaiante calls Capitol Squash "a transformative, life-altering program," that is the sort of calculation he has in mind.
"Capitol Squash is the single most important thing we do here," said Assaiante, who has coached the Trinity College men's squash team to a string of national championships. He also sits on the Capitol Squash board of directors.
"This program, if they are focused and disciplined, provides them an opportunity to improve themselves and get amazing educations,” he said.
Urban squash has been around in cities such as New York, Boston and New Haven, Conn. Across the country, nearly 20 programs are part of the Squash + Education Alliance, an urban squash collaborative serving more than 2,000 students with a commitment through college graduation. Capitol Squash is one of the newer members.
Throughout the year, the Capitol Squash kids go to the Trinity courts for a mix of squash practice and academic instruction — sharing the space with elite college players. The youngest Capitol Squash students are in fourth grade, and tryouts to add to the pipeline are set for early September.
Currently, the donor-funded nonprofit has 43 students, including a quarter who come from Karen refugee families that had been living in camps in Thailand before resettling in Hartford, Taylor said.
Ku has a younger sister who is already in Capitol Squash. And Julissa’s second-grader sister is waiting for her turn.
Julissa believes “consistency, drive and stamina” are needed to be a good squash player. To get into elite prep schools on scholarship, those qualities are needed off the court, too.
Capitol Squash wanted Julissa and Ku to focus on academics, without distractions, so the program steered them to a tuition-free, all-girls private middle school in Hartford called Grace Academy, which also has a mission of getting students to college. Grace pairs eighth-graders with volunteers who help guide them through the admissions process.
As Julissa played in more tournaments for Capitol Squash, her profile rose in eighth grade, and private schools came calling to recruit, said Emily Chernick, who has been Capitol Squash's academic director. She was Julissa's main navigator.
"I would just be like, 'Oh, I've got to take a call, it's another school,'" Chernick said. "I can only imagine for college. I mean, I know it's far off to think about, but I'm sure for college it's going to be the same thing all over again."
Several months ago, Julissa and Ku met at the Trinity squash courts. Some of their top supporters were here, too.
Julissa dreamed of getting into Taft School, while Ku's first choice was Ethel Walker. Both are boarding schools on scenic Connecticut campuses, where tuition and room and board run north of $60,000 a year for high school.
Ku grasped the admissions letter from Ethel Walker.
"We hope you are excited as we are," Ku read, "about the opportunities that await you as a member of the class of 2022."
"You got accepted!" Chernick shouted.
Julissa was next. She had a gift to unwrap. After ripping off the wrapping paper, Julissa pulled a grey sweatshirt out of the box. In red letters, across the front, was the name of her top choice: Taft. She had gotten a full-ride, all four years of high school.
Julissa got on the phone with her mom, who was working.
"She said she fell on the floor," Julissa relayed to the supporters gathered around her. "She fainted."
'I Deserve To Be Here'
Summer is winding down and move-in day is coming up. Capitol Squash has been telling Julissa and Ku what they might expect at boarding school. Excitement is tempered with the jitters of being in a new place of privilege.
"Sometimes I feel proud of myself for coming this far," said Ku, sitting in Capitol Squash headquarters. Ethel Walker's scholarship covers nearly all her expenses. "But also, sometimes I have my days where I think, can I really live up to their expectations? Like, will I be a disappointment and just let everybody down? But then I try not to think about that too much and be like, 'They want you for a reason.'"
Julissa has also been dealing with self-doubt. In those moments, she said, she tries to remember how she got here: Juggling school with squash tournaments on the weekends and prepping for prep-school admissions.
"I remember how I stressed I felt and how I overcame it all," Julissa said. "Then I boost my confidence and I say, oh, I really worked hard for this and I deserve to be here."
When they arrive on campus, they won't be alone. Capitol Squash is helping the girls move into their dorms.
This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.