To the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance," they paraded into the room, more than 130 strong. They wore their graduation robes — navy, black, green, white, burgundy, blue and red, making a stream of color and accomplishments.
The graduates were from different high schools, but they were all in one place: the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center at the University of Maryland on Wednesday, June 19 as part of the 23rd annual celebration for First Generation College Bound, a Laurel-based organization that guides young men and women on the path to higher education. Each of the graduates at the event are the first in their families to attend college, and there was a lot to celebrate that evening.
"It's exciting because what I see today is what I envisioned 23 years ago," said Laurel resident Joseph Fisher, the CEO and founder of FGCB. "Being able to encourage these kids to get to college, and seeing and hearing the excitement from their parents expressing their joy, it's exciting for me, too."
Even though Fisher has seen nearly two dozen celebrations, each one "always seems like the first," he said. Over the years, the organization has helped more than 1,200 students attend college.
Students come to FGCB through community homework clubs, pre-college access programs in middle schools or the college access program in several Prince George's County high schools, including Laurel, Potomac, Parkdale, Central and Fairmont Heights high schools. There are qualifications: a student must have a 2.0 GPA and pay the $25 registration fee, and they and their parents must be committed to the process.
"My mom always said she wanted for me to have a better career and lifestyle than she did," said Ebony Marcus, 17, a Laurel graduate set to attend Towson University. "This is important to me, and it's important to her."
More than 350 people — graduates, families, friends and elected officials — gathered in College Park for the celebration, presided over by master of ceremonies Tico Wells, an actor and Laurel High School alum like Fisher. Among the speakers was Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who urged fiscal responsiblity and congratulated the graduates on their hard work.
"It's pivotal and critical that you go to college in this global world," Franchot told the graduates. "But after you get out of college, trust me, no one owes you anything. It's not the same world it used to be. That's kind of gloomy, but ... if just one, or two, or three of you realize that it doesn't take an Einstein to be a success in this economy, you'll be fine. All it takes is a plan, a strategy and serious thinking about what you want to do and what to do with the income you make."
Of the more than 130 FGCB graduates this year, about 50 were from Laurel High. For many of them, not going to college was not an option, said Deaundrae Howard, 18, who has been in FGCB-sponsored programs since he was in elementary school, participating in a community homework club.
"One of the reason I'm going to school is that I've always wanted to explore, you know, just get out there and see what it's like," said Howard, who is going to Morgan State University to study computer science. "I do want to make it better than my parents. My parents are doing fairly well, but I do want to make it better for myself, see how far I can go."
Raquel Bush, 18, also a Laurel High graduate, cited furthering her education and gaining new experiences as reasons for going to college. It's important to her to do something she loves, she said, and her classmates agreed.
"People say college is the best experience you can have, but you have to be the one to make it the best," said Shayla Jenkins, 18, who will be attending Hood College. "I want to make a living doing something I love, and I'm excited for that."
Above all, the students are striving to be successful.
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"Success, for me, is not about making money," Howard said. "It's about having something to get up and do every day, rather than doing nothing, or being miserable at your job. I want to be successful, having a job I'm happy with."