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His father is a Washington University janitor. Now, this Bosnian refugee will study there.

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ST. LOUIS • There’s still a picture that floats around the house of Meris Saric as a toddler wearing an adult-size Washington University sweatshirt that he got from his dad.

But the photo and the sweatshirt have a new meaning to Saric, 18, now that he is moved in for his freshman year on the campus he grew up admiring.

His acceptance at the prestigious, private school means a little extra as a first-generation college student whose family’s time in St. Louis has been rooted deeply in the university.

Saric’s dad has been a member of the campus housekeeping crew since 2001. A few other relatives work there, too.

“You see these big hallways and you feel like you’re living in one of those movie scenes where a kid is trying to become a success story — I’m trying to write that for myself,” Saric said.

A long way from Bosnia

Meris Saric, 18, brought both Bosnian and American flags to hang in a corner of his freshman dorm room at Washington University on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. "I still cannot believe I'm going to Washington University," said the Bosnian refugee. "I've come a long way from Bosnia. This will change the trajectory of my life and the future for my family." Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

Saric doesn’t take for granted getting into Washington U. As an infant, he and his family relocated to St. Louis from a Bosnian refugee camp where they lived a few years after the genocide in their home nation.

“I’m going to be the first kid in my family to go to college, and not just any college — WashU,” Saric said. He moved into his dormitory, Park House, last week.

A graduate of Bayless High School, he is one of six freshmen at Washington U. this fall who came through the first group of College Prep Scholars.

The three-year-long scholars program was created at Washington U. with private donations to give mostly first-generation, low-income students and their families a better understanding of all things college. High schoolers and their parents learn about everything from how to fill out financial aid documents to time management.

The other incoming Washington U. students from the prep program graduated from St. Louis Public Schools, the Hazelwood School District and the Ladue School District, according to Leah Merrifield, director of the College Prep program.

Other students from this first group of college freshmen are headed off to schools like Duke University, Morehouse College, Truman State University, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Missouri State University, among others.

Inaugural Wash U College Prep Program

hallen Briggs (left) of Metro High School, Madyson Silver from Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, and Meris Saric of Gateway High School share laughs during lunch break on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, during the first Washington University College Prep Program. The goal of three-week program is to get academically gifted but low-income students, who are likely first generation college students, acclimated to the college experience. All 26 of the students in the program will begin their sophomore year in the fall. Photo by Christian Gooden,

Merrifield said 98 percent of students are the first in their family to go to college, and the average family income of participants is $30,000 a year.

There were 25 students in Saric’s college prep group, but interest — and competition — for the program has started to boom four years later.

For Saric, it all started when someone at Gateway STEM High School suggested he check out the program. He spent his freshman year at Gateway STEM before moving to the Bayless School District.

When it came time to apply, after he was formally nominated, Saric wrote his essay about how being a first-generation college student would affect his family.

Students start the program the summer between their freshman and sophomore years of high school. They live on campus two to three weeks, working on their writing skills and taking a STEM-focused class, as well as a seminar worth college credit.

“I thought at first it would be boring summer school,” Saric joked. “It caught me by surprise.”

One of his seminars was taught by Washington U.’s provost, Holden Thorp. That made an impression on Saric.

“For me, personally, sitting in front of him I was like, ‘How in the world did I get to be taught by someone like this?’” he said.

Saric speaks about overcoming self-doubt. He contemplates what others might think of him as he walks on his new campus. People might assume he comes from an affluent background, able to pay the almost $70,000 in tuition, room and board.

“If they ask, I’d tell them if (my parents) saved every single penny they couldn’t afford one semester at WashU. One year would have been — there’s no way,” he said.

A long way from Bosnia

Mele Saric takes a photo of her son Meris Saric after they finished moving him into his dorm room at Washington University on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. "This is a very, very happy day," Meris Saric said. She shared the images online so family members overseas could see her son in college. He will be the first person to attend college in the family. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

Between scholarships from the College Prep program and being a child of an employee, Washington U. was actually Saric’s least expensive option.

And his family couldn’t be more proud. Saric’s father took a break from work to help move his son into his dorm last week.

“There are professors’ kids going here … They’re going to know what to expect, they know what it takes to get into college,” Saric said. “My dad made a joke that, ‘I work here, too, and I have affiliations,’ but he was joking. He realized he couldn’t help me like some of the other kids here with connections. That set a fire in me.”

Saric is excited to build a legacy for his family, pursuing a political science degree and possibly, later, a law degree.

“Meris is a great example, a representative sample, of a St. Louis kid in the College Prep program,” Merrifield said. “He’s gained so much confidence and knows that he is supposed to be here.”

A long way from Bosnia

Meris Saric (right) talks with his roommate, Tyrin Truong, as they move into their dorm room at Washington University on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. The roommates talked online over the summer. They are both majoring in political science and are excited to run for student government office. "We have it all planned out," Saric said. "He's running for president and I am running for vice president." Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

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Ashley Jost is the higher education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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