First Generation College Bound makes higher education a reality

Cindy Hernandez has a busy future ahead of her. She's getting married in July, she's doing social work focused toward the Latino community in Washington and she just graduated from the University of Maryland with a Masters of Social Work.

But without the help of Joe Fisher and First Generation College Bound, she said, much this might have been more of a dream and less of a reality.

On June 20, FGCB held its annual commencement exercise that celebrates the matriculation of high school seniors now entering college, and also celebrates participants who have taken their education to a graduate and post-graduate level.

Families of the graduates poured into the Samuel Riggs Alumni Center hall and waited anxiously to see something their family hasn't seen before: A member going to college.

And even though Hernandez, 23, was too ill to attend the ceremony, her accomplishments mirrored those of the other attendees.

FGCB is a "grassroots" effort by Fisher to first interest high school students in a college education and, second, give them the tools to make that happen.

This year 96 of 104 high school seniors in the program are going to colleges all over the country, including American University, St. Augustine's Collegein North Carolina and Pasadena City College in Pasadena, Calif.

Twenty-eight students in the program graduated with bachelor's degrees and eight, including Hernandez, graduated with master's degrees. One student of the program graduated this year with their doctorate of pharmacy.

As of this year, five area high schools have FGCB chapters, including Central High, Parkdale High, Fairmont Heights High, Potomac High and Laurel High.

Two rows of chairs held the graduates, their robes making a collage of colors from the five different high schools and a handful of different colleges, ranging from maroon to blue, yellow to black and green to white.

At the ceremony, Fisher announced that FGCB would be expanding its program to three local middle schools, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle, Benjamin Stoddart Middle and William Wirt Middle.

The crowd of families showed excitement at hearing that more students like their children would have the extra help they need to go to college.

The ceremony had a heavy focus on remembering what the students had surpassed to achieve the goal of college admission.

Videos of FGCB staffers played at the beginning of them telling their stories of success. A high school student, a college student and a graduate student from FGCB all made remarks saying how thankful they were that their mentors were there to keep them from giving up on their dreams.

Lolita Jones, the mother of Kwame Jones, a graduate of Potomac High who will be attending St. Augustine's College, professed how thankful she was for FGCB's constant and stalwart support of her son. Jones also remembered how they had also helped her, too; they calmed her down, she said, when she was worried.

"We know that we deal with parents in challenging situations," Fisher said. "We're willing to do everything we can to support them to focus on their son or daughter to go to college."

Hernandez, like many of the graduates present at the ceremony, got involved in the FGCB program in high school.

"I knew throughout high school that I wanted to do something for myself, like go through school," said Hernandez on her drive to continue her education with the help of FGCB.

Hernandez's aunt and uncle, whom she lived with when she came to the United States at age 14, had no idea, she said, about the process of applying for college.

"It's very special because we've seen many kids not being able to go to college because they can't afford it, missed deadlines or they just didn't go about it the right way," said Fisher.

Hernandez said trips to college fairs, resume writing and that extra push to encourage them to get it all done were a few of the ways that FGCB gave her the "how-to" for graduating from Laurel High and entering the University of Maryland University College, where she had a double major in family science and Spanish.

Hernandez remembers being able to expect a call from Fisher to just check up on her and ask her how life and her studies were going.

"Just knowing that that phone call is going to come in, to me, that's kinda like somebody I need to keep accountable to," said Hernandez.

Successes like Hernandez's makes the work put into the past 21 years of FGCB worth it, Fisher said.

"Being able to overcome those barriers to attend college is gratifying and continues to energize us to do what we do," Fisher said.

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