Overcoming obstacles with First Generation College Bound

Kevin Palma and Amani Johnson found success through First Generation College Bound, graduating from the program on June 21.
Kevin Palma and Amani Johnson found success through First Generation College Bound, graduating from the program on June 21. (photo by Kea Taylor/courtesy Imagine)

By the time Kevin Palma graduated high school in 2012, the Miami native said he had attended five different high schools as his family moved to follow his father's changing jobs.

"My dad was either getting a better job or we moved to a nicer neighborhood. It was a good experience," Palma said.


Hardship struck the family at the end of Palma's junior year when his father lost his job, leaving them briefly homeless before coming to live with relatives in Laurel. During his semester-long stint at Laurel High School, Palma said, he found hope with First Generation College Bound, a Laurel organization that helps students apply to, attend and complete college.

In its 27th year, CEO and founder Joe Fisher said the nonprofit this month celebrated a record-breaking 200 high school graduates who will be the first generation in their families to attend college this fall. The Laurel-based program also recognized 30 students, including Palma, who graduated from a college or university.


The program holds workshops and face-to-face sessions with students across five Prince George's County high schools, Fisher said, with more than 2,000 students from the program attending college since it began in 1990.

While the stigma of success at a community college didn't bode well with the now-20-year-old North Laurel resident, Sarah Ahmed says she found herself through once-in-a-lifetime opportunities at Howard Community College, where she received her associate's degree on May 25.

First Generation College Bound received a $25,000 grant through the Prince George's Coiunty Government's community partnership on June 23.

"I've been really blessed to see the results of my vision 27 years ago," Fisher said. "It feels really good to know that if a kid, who is first generation, has a desire to go to college, [we can] support them to get them there."

Fisher said he was a product of his own creation after growing up in the East Capitol housing projects in Southeast Washington, D.C., with his parents and seven siblings. While he was good at cross-country and track, Fisher didn't enjoy going to school.

"The only reason I stayed on track to go to school was because my parents, who did not have a high school diploma, always wanted all eight siblings to finish high school," he said. "We grew up in the housing projects, [so] there was no one around you to say that you could go or encourage you to go."

Fisher recalled his family living from paycheck to paycheck, sometimes, losing their electricity because of unpaid bills. His athletic abilities, and guidance from his mentor and track coach, Hubert Gates, got Fischer accepted to Catholic University. He later attended Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he received his graduate degree.

First Generation College Bound began with 10 students in a low-income residential housing complex, Kimberly Gardens, in Laurel, Fisher said. To participate in the program, students must be the first generation in their family to go to college, meaning their parents do not have a college degree.

They're not necessarily the first of their siblings to go to college, Fisher added.

"Depending on your academic profile, you begin with a community college and move up," he said. "Our kids do not get a grade for overcoming the challenges they face growing up in their social and economic situation."

The program encourages students to take the SATs multiple times and maintain a good GPA. Workshops also review the admissions process and financial aid options with students and their families.

Successful students

In May, Palma graduated from New York's Columbia University, where he had a full scholarship and majored in political science with a concentration in psychology and economics.


Palma said he met Fisher at the start of his senior year at Laurel High. Although he and his family moved to Abingdon that November, Palma continued working with Fisher through the remainder of his senior year to find a college that was the right fit.

His father earned a GED, Palma said, while his mother earned a master's degree in special education in Guatemala – a degree that doesn't transfer to the United States.

Palma applied to 26 colleges and universities along the East Coast.

"[Fisher's] advice was indispensable because once all the application acceptances came in, it came down to Cornell, Princeton, Columbia and Johns Hopkins," Palma said. "He kept telling me to wait for the financial aid because all of them were giving a full-ride, but he helped me with the haggling and telling the financial officers at each school what else I'd need."

Rather than spending an average of $40,000 a year to attend Columbia University, Palma said he only had to take out a loan of less than $15,000 for a laptop and other materials.

Amani Johnson, a 2017 graduate of Laurel High, said she's been in the program since second grade, starting with its community-based Homework Club. The two clubs – one for first-through sixth-graders and another for seventh- through 12th-graders – are held at Kimberly Gardens.

Johnson, a former Kimberly Gardens resident, said she loved going to Homework Club. Her transition from middle to high school was difficult as she saw her grades drop, but the teachers were there for guidance.

"They made sure I was on the right track and doing what I was supposed to do," she said. "They checked up on me and made me feel secure and helped me progress. It was a learning experience that most kids don't have growing up."

Johnson will attend Wesley College in Delaware this fall.

Johnson said the First Generation College Bound staff "were more than just a program, they were my support system as well."

Fisher said he was proud of all of the program's students and their accomplishments. As the program continues to grow each year, he said, First Generation College Bound will share its tools to find the "best-fit colleges" for its students.

"My parents never lost hope or gave up," Fisher said. "We found a way, kept moving and we made it. I can relate to these kids. We strive to keep the kids motivated for winning attitudes for all grades."

When Laurel High School alumni Lacreesha Tyner graduated from college in May, she finished what her mother started a quarter of century ago.

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