College access program propels Wilde Lake grad to master's degree

For Kelie Darbouze, First Generation College Bound is a family affair. Not only was the program's founder, Joseph Fisher, her social studies teacher at Harper's Choice Middle School, but he taught her older sister, her mother and her mother's siblings.

Fisher, still a teacher at Harper's Choice and a track coach at Catholic University, got Darbouze and her sister involved in First Generation College Bound in middle school. The college access program offers homework clubs for younger students and, for high schoolers who aspire to be the first in their families to attend college, workshops, advice and college visits.

The program is based in Laurel and has a presence at five Prince George's County public high schools, but it is open to others from outside the county, like Darbouze.

On Wednesday, June 15, Darbouze joined about 100 other FGCB participants at a commencement ceremony held at the UMUC Marriott Inn and Conference Center in College Park to honor their success. Most of the students were high school graduates headed off to college. Darbouze was celebrating her master's degree.

She said Fisher, who she considers a mentor and a second father figure, played an important role in showing her what was possible.

Because Darbouze lived in Columbia and couldn't always find transportation to Laurel, she could not attend every FGCB event. But she said Fisher made sure she and her sister were on track.

"He would come to our house, check on us," she said. "He always made it a point to get us whatever information we needed."

The summer after her junior year, the program made it possible for Darbouze to participate in a college preparatory summer camp. "That very weekend I wrote the college essay that I would use to get into all my schools," she said.

Master's in social work

Darbouze, a graduate of Wilde Lake High School, ended up attending the University of Maryland College Park, where she earned a degree in criminology and criminal justice. She went on to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her master's degree in social work this year.

Although the direct support of First Generation College Bound ended after she entered college, she said the program, and Fisher, have always been there for her.

"Once you get to a certain point, you do the work and he gives you the tools you need, but he's there in your corner, supporting you, telling you you can do it," she said.

Since Fisher started FGCB 21 years ago by going door-to-door in the Laurel community, searching for recruits, the program has been able to help more than 900 students get accepted to college, an 85 percent success rate.

"My goal is to do everything I can," Fisher said.

Darbouze, 24, wants to earn a Ph.D. before she turns 30. She plans on working for a year or two to gain some job experience and catch her breath before going back to school. "I've been going to school now since kindergarten up until master's, so I'm a little burnt out," she laughed.

For now, she is celebrating her success. Dressed in full graduation regalia at the FGCB ceremony, she said the robe and hat were a symbol for all that she had accomplished so far.

"When you think about education, especially for a first generation student, it's not just us getting a degree — because, yes, we're the pioneers for our family," she said. "It's almost as if we're doing it for our family and friends, and part of that [graduation] attire is saying loud and proud that I got my degree and look at me now, I'm about to go out into the real world."

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