"Pomp and Circumstance" played over the loudspeakers of the UMUC Marriott Inn and Conference Center auditorium June 15 as students processed, dressed in full regalia. Their beaming families gave them a standing ovation, cheering and clapping above the music. For the students, this was their second graduation ceremony this month.
If Joe Fisher gets his way, it won't be their last.
The more than 100 graduates at the ceremony were all members of First Generation College Bound, a Laurel-based organization Fisher founded 21 years ago to support students who would be the first in their families to attend college.
The college access program offers workshops that guide students and their families through the admissions process, from filling out applications to applying for financial aid. Students are also taken on an average of three college visits.
"FGCB has really helped me find the right college and how to pay for it," said Muftau Shinaba, a 2011 Laurel High graduate. Shinaba will study biology at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall. He hopes to attend medical school after getting his undergraduate degree so he can work towards finding a cure for sickle cell anemia, a hereditary blood disease, which he suffered from as a child.
FGCB has a presence in five Prince George's County public high schools: Laurel, Parkdale, Potomac, Fairmont Heights and Central. Each school has a "lead encourager," an advisor who is assigned to keep track of every participant's progress.
Matthew Solano, another Laurel High graduate, said he could call his advisor anytime with questions.
"It's more than information," his mother, Bibi Solano, added. "You can just call them any time, make an appointment. … You can ask any question; they'll try to help you."
Torrence Oxendine, the lead advisor at Laurel High, said maintaining an open line of communication is key. "We try to be as accessible as possible," he said.
Participants say it's the program's personal touch that makes it so successful.
When the Solanos were considering Matthew's college options, Fisher came to their house to help them with the decision.
"He gave us information on the different colleges that I had lined up, and helped us narrow them down to the college that I'm going to now," Matthew Solano said. He will attend St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he plans to study biology.
Fisher said individualized attention is a keystone of FGCB.
"One-on-one is so critical," he said. "There's a lot of support and encouragement that takes place."
He joked that students used to call him "the stalker" because of his determination to get them to the finish line.
"I would go to their homes. If they had a part-time job I would go there to make sure they were getting stuff done on time," he said.
His persistence has paid off. The program has a track record of success, with 85 percent of participants entering college — more than 900 students in all so far. Last year, FGCB recognized its first graduate to receive a doctorate in dentistry. This year, it boasted a graduate with a law degree from Duke University and a graduate with a master's in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.
FGCB has come a long way since Fisher started out in 1990, searching for recruits by knocking on doors in two Laurel communities. His first-year goal was to help 10 students get accepted to college. He ended up seeing about 20 students reach that milestone.
Fisher, a Laurel resident who teaches history at Harper's Choice Middle School in Howard County, said his inspiration came from his own experiences growing up in a housing project in Southeast Washington.
"Ninety percent of households in my community didn't have a degree," Fisher said. "The goal of my community was to finish high school." He said he didn't consider college to be an option until his high school track and field coach helped him obtain an athletic scholarship to Catholic University. He went on to earn a master's degree in urban education from Morgan State University.
Now, he is a mentor for hundreds of students a year. In addition to FGCB's college access program, the organization has homework clubs for elementary and middle school students and college retention programs that continue to support alumni.
Every year, the organization hosts a ceremony to celebrate its students' successful efforts.
"It's like graduation all over again," said Courtnee Bennett, who plans to study criminal justice at Bowie State University. Bennett became involved with FGCB in eighth grade as a Homework Club member.
The keynote speaker for this year's event was Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III. Baker spoke about his own aspirations as the first in his family to go to college. A graduate of Howard University's law school, Baker said that attending college "opened up my eyes to things I never knew I could accomplish and do."
Bibi Solano said she hopes First Generation College Bound continues to help local students achieve their goals.
"A lot of parents are in the same predicament," she said. "You don't know where the money is going to come from… how you get (your kids) prepared. I think it's a very good program and I hope it stays around for awhile."
"My goal is to do all I can," Fisher said.