Atlanta’s Project Grad helps a first generation of college students

By Saba Long

“At first I didn’t think about college. I just wanted to get out of high school…but after I graduated I realized that wasn’t enough,” stated Kristy Williams.

Williams, a 2006 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and the first of her family to earn a high school diploma remarked during a Project GRAD Atlanta panel discussion at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema following a recent screening of First Generation — a feature-length documentary following four California high school students hoping to break the shackles of poverty by pursuing a college degree.

Shot over three years, the documentary captures the struggles of these four students — Dontay, the inner city athlete; Soma, a fatherless Samoan; Jess, a straight A student afraid to leave her small town behind and; Cecilia, the fiercely independent track star and daughter of migrant workers.

As the story unfolds, the audience audibly reacts to a number of pivotal moments. In a meeting with her guidance counselor, Jess, in the top ten percentile of her class, is told she can get into any state school but chooses a community college to be with her boyfriend and continues to work at her family’s restaurant.

Cecilia dreams of going to UCLA but is afraid to tell the story of her inner struggle in the form of a college essay. She ends up running track for a smaller state school and outperforms the UCLA team at various meets.

According to independent reports used by Project GRAD Atlanta, first generation college students are more likely to begin college at two-year institutions. These individuals also enter college with limited information about the college experience and have less academic preparation.

Started in 2000, Project GRAD Atlanta collaborates with Atlanta Public Schools to provide holistic college readiness training for traditionally underserved students. The three Brumley-GRAD scholar panelists, including Kristy Williams, have all faced tremendous difficulties in getting to and finishing college.

Like the students featured in the documentary, the panelists often received conflicting information from school counselors and peers. Additionally, some were under pressure to stay home and take care of family members rather than pursue a higher education.

The impact of Project GRAD on the panelists achievements is crystal clear.

Eduardo Soriano, a 2008 graduate of South Atlanta High School is on track to earn his master’s degree in organic chemistry from Georgia State University in spring 2014. He will be the first of his immediate family to earn a high school, undergraduate and master’s degree.

Dontavious Taylor, a College Access Advisor for seniors at D.M. Therrell High School will matriculate through Morehouse in a few weeks and has already secured a position at Teach for America.

Finally, Kristy Williams, whose college journey was perhaps the most challenging of the panelists, will graduate from Oglethorpe University in a matter of weeks.

For low-income and immigrant households, the road to higher education, while narrow  has been proven to be smoother as a result of the work of Project GRAD.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

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