When Denis Benitez was growing up, the idea of receiving a college degree was always an afterthought.
“When I was younger, I didn’t think about it as much, didn’t see it as something that I wanted,” said Benitez, a Laurel resident.
Coming from a family of El Salvadoran immigrants, Benitez 18, realized that by attending college, not only would he be the first person in his family to do so, he would be building upon his parents’ American dream.
“The thought of college kept lingering in the back of my head. I had to be the one to go, maybe the first of my family and break that curse of not getting any further education,” Benitez said.
In June, Benitez graduated from Laurel High School. Thanks to a Laurel-based nonprofit that supports students from low income families pursuing higher education, he will attend Howard Community College in the fall, with plans to study business.
Joe Fisher, a 42-year Laurel resident, founded First Generation College Bound Inc. in October 1990 because of his own personal experience of living in a low-income family in Washington, D.C.
“We grew up in a public housing community [where] no one had a college degree … my parents had not even graduated high school,” Fisher said.
First Generation is for local-area students who come from low or moderate income families, Fisher said. To be in the program, students must have a 2.0 minimum grade point average, qualify for free or reduced-price meals and their parents do not have a bachelor’s degree.
“If you have four siblings but your parents don’t have a college degree, you’re all first generation,” Fisher said.
Fisher attended Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C., Catholic University for his undergraduate studies and Morgan State University for graduate school. In 2012, Fisher retired from Howard County Public Schools, where he had been a social studies teacher at Harpers Choice Middle School.
A former track athlete, Fisher has been the women’s cross country coach at Catholic University for 39 years.
Since First Generation’s inception, it has reached approximately 2,100 students and over 600 have graduated from high school to attend college, Fisher said. The program is currently tracking 1,000 of the students who have gone through the program and now are pursuing college degrees.
“If you desire, you can attend a best-fit [and] affordable college where you can achieve your college dream. We have made that happen for 600 students so far,” Fisher said.
The program impacts five high schools within Prince George’s County - Laurel, Parkdale, Fairmount Heights, Central and Potomac high schools.
For 28 years, the program has provided advisement and support to high school students who have the potential to attend college but do not realize they have resources available for them to make that happen, Fisher said.
“Our goal is to get students to develop and maintain a winning attitude for education,” Fisher said.
The program ensures that the students take either the SAT or ACT tests, both widely used standardized exams for college admissions purposes, and helps the students complete the FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid.
Students also receive assistance with filling out college applications and applying for merit-based scholarships as well.
Deja Cobbs, the lead college access coach for the program, works directly with the high school students to guideand give support in the college application process.
Cobbs, of Randallstown, assists the students in understanding what the college application process is, what financial aid is and which state grants are available to them. Once they get to college, she advices them on to be advocates for themselves.
“It’s about me being there for the student and empowering them,” Cobbs said.
When Cobbs was growing up, she was told by teachers that she “wasn’t a college bound student.”
Cobbs holds both an undergraduate degree from Towson University and a masters’ degree from the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
“Seeing other youth dealing with setbacks and challenges but knowing they can it if they have the right attitude … they can be just as successful as any other adult,” Cobbs said.
Within the organization, Fisher has also established a homework club for students between first grade up to senior year of high school. Created 23 years ago, the homework club focuses on reinforcing the importance of education.
The club meets at Kimberly Gardens, a low-income residential housing complex in Prince George's County. Staffed by certified teachers, the students receive homework assistance and other academic support, including having students master the rigors of meeting education standards and decreasing the gaps that persists for at-risk student access and success in higher education. For 30 weeks during the school year, students attend the homework club for two hours each week.
Each June, the program holds a College Bound Ceremony for all First Generation high school graduates who are moving onto college at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
At this year’s celebration held on June 28, 150 students, 39 of them from Laurel High School, were recognized for graduating high school and 70 former First Generation students were honored for graduating college.
Benitez, who has been with the program since the eighth grade, was chosen to give the college bound reflection speech at this year’s ceremony. In his speech, Benitez thanked Fisher and Cobbs for all their support and guidance over the years.
“The dedication and love that they gave [me] will always be treasured and I cannot thank them enough,” Benitez said, in the speech.
Benitez said that from his personal experience, First Generation was “something wonderful” and really helped him prepare for college.
The program showcased to Benitez that there are people out there who care and want to see you succeed.
First Generation is funded through a combination of programs, including Prince George’s County Government, the city of Laurel, the Maryland Higher Education Commission outreach grant and corporate and individual sponsors, according to Fisher.
Fisher said he has been working on the program “long enough to see the results of my vision.”
“I think the proudest thing for me is recognizing we’ve been able to get the message out there to low and modern income students that you don’t have to be an outstanding athlete or outstanding in the classroom to go to college,” Fisher said.