Voices Of Support

Making the Difference: Florida Students Achieving Goal 2025

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.

On the campus of Miami-Dade College’s Kendall Campus, we caught up with Kendra Walker and John Lopez. Both overcame teenage years marked by homeless shelters and foster placements to obtain degrees from major Florida universities.

With assistance from Educate Tomorrow, both students were able to take advantage of Florida’s tuition waivers for homeless and foster youth.  Walker knocked out a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Florida while Lopez formalized his love of art and drawing with a dual enrollment degree in graphic design from the University of Florida and Miami’s New World School of the Arts.

Meanwhile, in Naples, we caught up with several alumni of the Take Stock in Children program, which provides long-term mentors for aspiring first-generation college students beginning in seventh grade. These mentors provide a long-term commitment to the youth, helping them think ahead to higher education and help the students apply to college, formulate their essays and prep for the college board exams.

Johnathan Franco, now a mechanical engineering major at the University of South Florida, recounts how the program exposed him to robotics at an early age and helped him to become the first in his family to attend college.

Kiara Gonzalez-Duran talks about life at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where she plans to use her double-major in psychology and elementary education to return to her community as a school teacher.

Maria Reyes, now a sports management major at Florida Gulf Coast University, reflects on how her mentor not only guided her through college applications, resumes and essays but became like a trusted family member, helping her to navigate a major transition in life.

“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.