WHEATON HIGH SCHOOL, CLASS OF 2010
GETTYSBURG COLLEGE, CLASS OF 2014
“As far as I knew, I couldn’t afford to go to college anyway because we didn’t have any money.”
Mauricio Novoa wasn’t optimistic about his future. Even though he was only in the 9th grade, he had seen his peers join gangs and drop out of school. He was keenly aware that the education he was receiving at Wheaton High School was very different than the education students at a more affluent school might receive. Mauricio, the oldest of four boys, knew that finances were an issue for his family, and higher education just didn’t seem realistic. His mother worked as a maid at a hotel, and his father worked for Montgomery County doing manual labor. “As far as I knew, I couldn’t afford to go to college anyway because we didn’t have any money,” Mauricio says.
Because he didn’t think college was an option for him, he stopped paying attention in school. Then, in his junior year, a senior named Binh told him about Collegiate Directions, Inc. Binh, a CDI Scholar, encouraged Mauricio to apply. Mauricio was hesitant. His grades were low, and he felt no teacher or counselor would recommend him. Undeterred, Binh said that he would recommend him. Mauricio submitted an application and received an interview. But the CDI team was also uncertain. They had seen his report cards and questioned if he was committed to his studies. Once again, Binh intervened. He emailed founding executive director Theresa Atta saying, “Ms. Atta, please give Mauricio a chance. I believe in him.” That email ensured that Mauricio would be part of the program.
As a CDI Scholar, he received college counseling, ACT preparation, and numerous workshops on life skills. The CDI team helped him to understand the financial aid process and how he could afford college. He began to see higher education as a real possibility and became more motivated in school. When he handed in a straight “A” report card to Theresa, she couldn’t believe her eyes. With tutoring, Mauricio did remarkably well on his ACT, scoring a 32 out of a possible 36. He applied to 10 colleges and was accepted to eight of them. The school with the strongest financial aid package was Gettysburg College, a school that CDI had introduced him to.
At Gettysburg, Mauricio thrived. He fostered his love of writing and became an English major. He also volunteered with the LIU Migrant Education Program, which provides academic support for the children of migrant workers. He connected with the children because they were like him – children of immigrant parents who came to this country for a better life, but were still struggling. “Many of these kids showed a drive I didn’t see too often in my own life in education, and working with these kids taught me a lot more about the world and myself than I could ever describe. I owe the person I am today to those kids,” Mauricio says. He remained connected to CDI, as well, checking in regularly and giving tours to younger CDI Scholars who visited Gettysburg.
In the spring of 2014, Mauricio became the first person in his family to graduate from college. He decided to stay in Gettysburg, and began working full time for the LIU Migrant Education Program, helping other students as CDI once helped him.
WALTER JOHNSON HIGH SCHOOL, CLASS OF 2007
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE SCHOOL OF NURSING, CLASS OF 2012
“I knew that … everyone at CDI was willing to go the extra mile to help me. I could not have done this by myself.”
A member of the first class of CDI Scholars, Merab Okeyo exemplifies why we do what we do. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she moved to the United States so her father could work as a chauffeur to the Kenyan ambassador. At Walter Johnson High School, Merab was vice president of the Peer Counseling Program, president of the Photography Club, and a member of the varsity track and field team. Her dual passions were chemistry and caring for others, and she dreamed of working for Doctors Without Borders.
Merab knew that she had to attend college to achieve her goals. Her father had only been educated through high school, her mother only through primary school. She applied to Collegiate Directions, Inc. hoping that we could give her the guidance that her parents could not. Merab was all the things we look for in a CDI Scholar, but she did not have a green card; she was in the country on her father’s work visa. This precluded her from getting federal financial aid, making paying for college much more difficult. Still, founding executive director Theresa Atta could not turn her away.
Merab flourished in the CDI program. She worked with tutors to raise her test scores and with counselors to complete her college applications. With CDI’s guidance, she chose to attend a well-regarded college in New York, where she had been named a Presidential Scholar, the highest merit award offered by the school. Ineligible for federal aid, Theresa counseled her that receiving merit aid would be crucial to her ability to attend and complete college.
Merab thrived at college. She maintained a B+ GPA and was elected president of the new cultural club. She described her freshman year as, “the most fulfilling and active year of my entire educational career.” Then, she was informed that her scholarship would not be renewed.
With CDI’s help, Merab crafted an appeal to the financial aid office. When that proved fruitless, CDI founder Nina Marks and Theresa made their own appeals to the staff. Before school began, Theresa traveled from CDI’s office in Bethesda to the college’s campus in New York to personally appeal to the financial aid office. To everyone’s dismay, the situation remained unchanged.
Together with the team, Merab made a plan. She would attend Montgomery College for a while, taking classes and working multiple jobs to save money. Disappointed but not defeated, Merab worked hard at Montgomery College for three semesters, maintaining a 3.8 GPA. After that, she transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Nursing, graduating in 2012.
Today, Merab works as a Registered Nurse and is now getting her Master of Science in Nursing. She remains an active part of the CDI family. She serves on the alumni committee and often returns to the office to meet with younger students.
Merab’s story is not an uncommon one for low-income, first-generation students. Many intelligent and driven students are prevented from completing college by financial obstacles and a lack of familiarity with the college process. Merab doesn’t like to think about what might have happened if the CDI family had not been pulling for her every step of the way. “I knew that … everyone at CDI was willing to go the extra mile to help me. I could not have done this by myself.”
WHEATON HIGH SCHOOL, CLASS OF 2011
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY, CLASS OF 2015
“No one in my family had gone to college and I had the support and the opportunity to go. The staff made me feel like they were happy to have me.”
As a junior in high school, Wendy Ayala was already acting as the head of her household. Both Wendy and her mother suffer from lupus. As Wendy grew up, her mother’s condition steadily deteriorated. Much of Wendy’s time and energy was devoted to taking her mother to doctor appointments, acting as her translator and caregiver. She helped to maintain the household and care for her younger sister, all while balancing her own health concerns.
Despite her other responsibilities, Wendy was active at school. She joined the Student Government Association and the homecoming committee and played field hockey. She also dreamed of continuing her education. She knew college would be a challenge; that’s why her high school counselor suggested applying to CDI. CDI would give Wendy the support she needed to get to and through college, support that she especially needed because she was already doing so much to help her family. “I had something to prove,” she said. “No one in my family had gone to college and I had the support and the opportunity to go. I was excited because they were excited,” Wendy remembers. “The staff made me feel like they were happy to have me.” In addition to helping her prepare for standardized tests and research colleges, CDI counselors helped Wendy stay on track with her high school assignments, and coordinated with her school counselors when she was absent for health reasons.
CDI walked Wendy through the research and financial aid process, providing the guidance her family was not always able to. Location and size were key factors in her college choice. She wanted to be able to have one-on-one interactions with her professors, and she needed to remain close to home. Wendy fell in love with UMBC and remembers jumping for joy when she received her acceptance letter.
Her love for UMBC only grew when she got on campus. She loved the area, the many new activities, and her classes. She also continued to work to support her family and her education. Then, the time came when the financial burden was just too great. She knew that even with loans, grants, and scholarships, she could no longer cover the full cost of tuition.
For many low-income, first-generation students, this would be the end of the story. Many students leave school to work to pay off debt and never return. Fortunately, Wendy had CDI’s support. Together with counselor Tracy Kyttle, Wendy made a plan to spend a semester at Montgomery College, where she could take courses with little cost out of pocket and save to return to UMBC. Tracy stayed in close touch with Wendy, making sure she was on track and would be in good shape when she began classes at UMBC again. After a semester off, Wendy was back on the campus that she loved.
As a college senior, she interned at the Baltimore Mayor’s Office for Employment Development, while balancing classes and a job. With a lot of effort, she graduated—on time—with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology. Following graduation she began working in the mayor’s office and, with CDI’s continued support, is planning to go to graduate school for public administration.
Students like Wendy possess the intelligence and the drive to succeed in college, but their other obligations can make completing their education difficult. CDI is privileged to be the support these students need to get to college graduation and beyond.
You can help students like these!
Donations to the CDI Scholars Program are what make these life-changing opportunities possible.