When she first walked through the doors at College Bound Dorchester, Domingas Dos Santos wanted just one thing: to learn English.

The thought of earning her GED, let alone a college degree, was as foreign and inaccessible as the language she couldn’t speak or understand. A recent arrival from Cape Verde, Dos Santos, then 26, was a mother of three boys under 6, unemployed, and living in a shelter. A high school diploma? A college degree? You may as well have offered her a trip to the moon, they were all equally unimaginable.

“I just wanted to speak English,” she says.

Now, four years later, Dos Santos is fluent in English, passed her GED exam this August, and will soon be enrolling in college. Her new goal: to earn a college degree and become a teacher. She and her sons are out of the shelter and in an apartment, she holds a part-time job, and is studying for her citizenship exam. Her days start early and run late — 12+ hours of school, work, and multiple buses five days a week before she and the boys return home at night. It’s a far cry from the days of speaking only Creole, living in a shelter, and relying on translators when she needed to speak to her children’s pediatricians or teachers.

“Everything is possible. if you believe and work for it, you can get it,” she says. “When you get the chance to do something, don’t give up. You can do it. Sometimes it’s not easy to be a mom, but you have to think about a better future for your kids.”

And, she notes, none of her hard work would have been possible without the opportunities available via the organization from which she just wanted to learn English: College Bound Dorchester.

A New Vision for Old Obstacles

A nonprofit, College Bound Dorchester was created in 2010, developed out of 50-year-old nonprofit Federated Dorchester, which provided social services to children and families. CBD (collegebounddorchester.org) operates around the belief that youth and young adults in this Boston neighborhood famously known for crime and poverty can be just as educationally successful as their peers from wealthier suburbs if the playing fields were equal. However, the pitch can be wildly tilted against a young person who lives within these 6 square miles; he or she may be dealing with a raft of challenges with stakes far higher than passing their next History test: poverty, homelessness, language barriers, gang involvement, a prison record, the need to hold a full-time job to support their family, and more.

“We have this fundamental belief that our students are no different than students in Newton or Wellesley, where you have 98% college-going,” says College Bound Dorchester CEO Mark Culliton. “The folks in Wellesley and Newton, the young people there are allowed to focus on their education. They don’t have to deal with childcare, they don’t have to deal with food insecurity, they don’t have transportation issues, they don’t have to deal with getting a full-time job. We’ve tried to create a similar environment here that gives students enough resources and support so they can concentrate on college. If you believe that our students are no different intellectually or in terms of motivation than students with a 98% college-bound rate, then the only thing getting in the way are these other things. If we remove them, then we should — and we do — see an equal level of success.”

To level the playing field, the organization offers a series of programs and support for people ages 17-27 to help remove the hurdles to life-altering opportunities, like learning English, earning a GED (now known as the HiSET), and enrolling in a two- or four-year college. Staffers can help students find low-income housing, apply for food assistance, obtain legal residency, find a part-time job, study for citizenship, navigate the Department of Children & Families, the court system, and more.

In Dos Santos’s case, College Bound helped her find an apartment to get the family out of a shelter. While her oldest two children, Victor, now 11, and Diego, 9, were in school, she took advantage of the childcare that College Bound offered and took Christian, now 4,  to school with her. He went to the Early Childhood program and she went to class. 

Speaking only her native Creole, she started at Level 1 of College Bound’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. It took two years for her to move through the program’s four levels and become fluent enough to start studying for the HiSET. It was another two years of 5 a.m. alarms, buses, and Monday-Thursday 9 a.m.-2 p.m. classes until she took and passed her HiSET this summer.

“She learned English, and then enough academic English, to be able to pass a high school equivalency exam that only about 60% of high school students in this country can pass,” notes Ashley Hannah, program leader of CBD’s Foundations program, which encompasses the ESOL and HiSET classes. “Research into second-language acquisition shows it takes four years to have basic English competency; it can take seven years to learn enough academic English to do academic work.”

Dos Santos, she notes, blazed through in about half the time, and is an example of the success College Bound students can achieve if critical concerns such as housing, food, and childcare are addressed.

“If we can provide that same level of support, our students will have the same, if not greater, success [as suburban youth],” Culliton asserts. “Think about the challenges they’ve faced and the commitment they exhibit even to get to where they are — that grit, the perseverance, the resiliency necessary to live in the communities that we live in and serve. Let’s not fool ourselves that there’s something fundamentally different that allows for greater success, other than resources, support, and access.”

College Bound operates around the central tenet that education, access, and opportunity — one person at a time — could eventually end generational poverty. Individual transformation, Culliton hopes, will lead to neighborhood transformation.

“We have a responsibility to do the same for our students, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we don’t do it as a country. We allow whole neighborhoods, whole areas of cities across America, to create generation after generation of failed individuals because we don’t properly support them and because we allow for broken communities to diminish the prospects, expectations, and success of multiple generations,” he says. “If we support, serve, and nurture those with the greatest challenges, we can not only see individual impact, we can potentially change [or] end generational urban poverty.”

That can be easier said than seen, Hannah adds, but says a person’s hard work will have a natural ripple effect.

“For individual students right now that’s hard to see,” she says. “They want to learn English for themselves, for their children. They want to get their HiSET. If you’re living in this neighborhood, it’s hard to believe that things could be different. It’s hard to believe there could be a time where everyone is going to college and there’s not gangs running the streets. It’s hard to believe that could exist and that someday Dorchester could be the new Wellesley. Students, working on their individual levels, think about themselves and their children, which will have a natural ripple effect. There’s a reason why in Newton and Wellesley everyone goes to college. Because their parents did, and their parents did; those are baseline expectations that people don’t even question.”

Even though her days of studying for the HiSET are over, Dos Santos is still working hard. She’s up at 5 a.m. daily, getting her children ready for school and making three meals for them as they’re in school from 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. every day. It takes two buses for Dos Santos to get her children to school and herself to her classroom in College Bound’s Bridge To College program, which preps students for academic and personal readiness. When she’s ready, Dos Santos plans to study education and enroll in one of three colleges with which CBD has partnerships: Bunker Hill Community College, Roxbury Community College, or Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. After a morning of classes, she heads to her job at Home Depot (where she was named Cashier of the Year for 2015), and works until it’s time to pick up her children at 6 p.m. Then it’s two buses home, repeated Monday through Friday.

“I’m going to school so my kids can be proud of me,” she says. But are you proud of yourself? “I’m proud of myself,” she notes with a shy smile.

Local Ties

College Bound Dorchester wants to enroll 500 students per year across its College Connections and Support Programs, from ESOL and college enrollment to early education. This year it saw close to 600 students, Culliton says, adding the #1 source of new students is other students.

“To me, that is a big sign of success,” he says.

Since it was founded, more than 150 young people have enrolled in college with a retention rate of 61%, a number significantly higher than the national norm.

College Bound staff are also proud of their personal — as well as professional — buy-in.

“We are not an organization full of people who are helping some other community. We are of the community, we are in the community,” Culliton says. “The whole leadership team lives in Dorchester, raising our families in Dorchester. When we walk around, when we interact with our friends and neighbors, it’s about Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury. The vast majority of us spend our Saturdays on the streets where we serve, Sundays on soccer fields or basketball courts with people in the community. The fact we are in and of the community is critical for it to be successful.”

The personal commitment is key, Culliton and Hannah note, because for many students, the College Bound Dorchester staff, teachers, and college readiness advisors may be the only people who see a student’s potential and future beyond the norm for many Dorchester youth.

“[Staff] meet the students where they are and meet them with the really high expectation of college graduation,” Culliton says. “For many of our students, this is the first time there’s been an adult in their life who has believed in their genius. Many have been told they’re not worth it or they’re not going to do it. There’s a lot of ‘No’s,’ ‘They’re not worth it,’ ‘You’re wasting your time,’ ‘What about jobs programs?’ But there’s nothing more inspiriting than spending some time with students and seeing what real commitment and dogged determination looks like.”

“You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you have no one supporting you, that you know has your back, if you don’t have those personal supports, family and friends, I think it would be very hard to succeed without that, too,” Hannah adds. “I always want students to know, if you have no one else you can go to, you can come here. If you don’t have anyone else, we can be that person for you, because we really care about the students on an individual level.”

Expanding Expectations

A 501c3, College Bound Dorchester receives some support through city and state programs, but the majority is privately funded through grants, corporations, foundations, and individuals.

The staff does a lot of fundraising to get donors to literally buy into their vision of individual and neighborhood transformation, that college for Dorchester youth can become an automatic expectation, just like it is for wealthier peers across the state.

“We rise to those expectations set around us,” Culliton says. “People think that folks who make it out of our community are somehow exceptional, they’re not. They’re allowed to be the geniuses they are.”

“For some people, college is an expectation from birth,” Hannah adds. “For most people, I don’t think that conversation is had. Domingas has not only made a difference in her life by deciding to go to college, but she has directly influenced her children’s lives. If she’s showing them education is important, they’re going to finish high school. If she goes to college, it is just an expectation [for them]. She’s changing her own life and directly influencing her son’s lives. And it directly influences the community.”

Dos Santos notes she is spreading the word and encouraging those thinking about enrolling in CBD to do so for one simple reason: “Everybody should get the same chance I got.”

Melissa Shaw