Earlier this summer, Florida C.A.N.! visited students in Naples and Miami to record their stories of being the first in their families to attend college. On camera, these promising college students and recent grads spoke movingly about the mentors and organizations that aided them in finding scholarships, navigating the application process and helping them realize their dreams.

“It’s a big accomplishment. Back in seventh grade, it wasn’t a realistic dream. I don’t know if it was because I was younger or because it was so expensive,” says Danielle Barbarotto, now attending Florida Gulf Coast University as a communications major. “But now that it’s happening, I have such bigger goals for myself. I want to get back involved in the community that helped me get to where I am.”

Danielle is a Naples alum of Take Stock in Children, a program she credits for shepherding her through the college application process.

“Being a community health major on a pre-med track means I will one day obtain my goal of being an ob-gyn, which has always been a dream of mine,” says China Pierrelus, a community health major at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Also [it means a lot] to my family. I’m the first one to begin college and finish.” Pierrelus is also a Naples alum of Take Stock in Children, a program she says helped her with finding scholarships and financial aid and provided emotional and logistical support for applying to college.

Laura Santamaria didn’t attend any particular college access program while growing up in Collier County. When she was a young girl, her family moved from Colombia to South Florida with the hope that Laura would one day attend college. Despite their love and support, Laura’s parents lacked the language skills and insider knowledge to navigate the college process. Laura would have to learn much of it on her own, achieving success with help from her high school teachers as well as through her own trial and error. In her senior year of high school, she was named a Gates Millenium Scholar, a prestigious award that gave her academic and financial support all the way through college graduation.Since graduating with a degree in social policy from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois last year, she has returned home to join the staff of Champions for Learning in Naples.

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