Rick Dalton, CEO & President of CFES Brilliant Pathways, shares the story of four high school seniors who overcome obstacles in becoming college and career ready.

This spring, nearly 2.2 million young people across the United States are taking final steps to enroll in college as they confirm financial aid awards, sign up for courses and place deposits. Over the last 26 years, CFES Brilliant Pathways, has helped 100,000 students, mostly from low-income households, take steps down the college pathway. Ninety-five percent of these students have gone on to college and two-thirds of them have completed degrees. But numbers tell only a small part of the story, so it’s important to look beyond the numbers and hear from the young people who will soon be going to college.

In a recent visit to Florida, I met with several high school seniors to learn about their college plans and to assess the impact of CFES Brilliant Pathways, in helping these students become college and career ready.

I was especially struck by four young women who have overcome considerable obstacles as they prepared for college and career.

Felecia is a senior at Mulberry High School. An only child, Felecia lives with her grandmother; her biological mother is disabled and there is no father in the picture. When Felecia first joined the CFES program at Mulberry Middle School six years ago, “I didnn’t think I’d do anything after high school,” said Felecia. She is now planning to study music at Florida State University, where she was awarded a full scholarship.

Grecia, Lillee and Maricela are all seniors at Booker High in Sarasota, Fla. Grecia, an immigrant from Mexico, is a DACA (Deferred Action for early Childhood Arrivals) student. “I do not have the same opportunities as a U.S. citizen. I have had to go the extra mile to apply to college and apply for scholarships because not all accept DACA or non- citizen students,” she told me. Her siblings and mother face severe medical issues. “This has motivated me,” Grecia says. “I have passion to save lives and help others like those doctors who saved my family members. I enjoy taking science classes and learning about the human body.” She plans to become a pediatrician or obstetrician and has received scholarships from two colleges, Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., and Cottey College in Missouri.

Lillee has raised her three younger sisters because her father is incarcerated and her mother struggles with mental illness and substance abuse issues. “I grew up in a household where excellence was barely getting by, yet I always had a desire to achieve something greater than the life I was leading,” she says. Lillee has been accepted at 10 colleges with significant scholarships, including a $215,000 award from Florida Southern College that will cover all expenses and provide a stipend and even a laptop. She plans to become either a pediatric neurologist or endocrinologist.

When Maricela’s aunt and mother contracted cancer, Maricela was pulled from middle school so that she could assume the role of caregiver. She and her two siblings made frequent trips back to Honduras so that her mother could receive medical treatment for malignant cysts in her breasts. After her aunt died and her mother’s illness abated, Maricela enrolled at Booker as a sophomore. It didn’t go well, though; “I took no interest in being productive and verged on dropping out altogether,” she said. Then she was introduced to the college and career room at Booker that is led by Mr. Andrews and embodies “CFES principles.” Today, Maricela has a 3.7 GPA and she’s taking dual enrollment courses at New College of Florida and bio-science honors courses at Booker. The illnesses of her aunt and mother have inspired her: “After spending years in and out of hospitals due to many family members falling ill to cancer, I realized the passion I have for becoming an oncologist,” Maricela said. She plans to study biochemistry in college, specifically to research the effects of Interleukin-2 on viable melanoma cells.

When I asked the four students what helped them overcome obstacles and position themselves to not only move out of poverty but to also change the trajectory of their younger siblings, each one talked about the power of peer mentoring and, specifically, sharing information about how to pay for college. “I have passed down all the knowledge to my underclassmen mentees,” Grecia said. “I have given them tips about what they should be doing to be ready for senior year.”

Lillee contends that helping her peers get on the college readiness track means “showing them that the adversity they face is only as difficult as they perceive it.” She recognizes the value of developing essential skills like leadership and agility that allows kids to succeed. Maricela agrees. “Peer mentoring allowed me to flourish,” she said. “Having students help their peers with what they learn through CFES allows kids to better understand what is being taught and pushes you to be the best you can.”

Maricela seemed to sum the power of CFES: “While in the CFES room, one of the first questions you will be asked is, ‘Do you know what you want to do after you graduate?’ As simple as that question may be, it is a question that holds the most meaning to any child feeling as lost as I did. Through CFES and my mentor, I have built a plan and a path for my future. Because of CFES, I don’t just know what my goal for the future is, I know exactly how I am going to achieve it.”