Supporters of Excel Beyond 211 recently celebrated the completion of another college year by honoring 27 new graduates and 90 scholarship award winners.
The annual event, which was held July 14 at Palatine High School, drew more than 300 supporters of the nonprofit organization, which this year provided mentoring and financial aid for more than 120 first-generation college students from low-income families. Now in its 7th year as an affiliate of Scholarship America, EB 211’s recent college graduates set a record for the organization, which has worked with 236 students and 157 mentors since it began in 2015. In addition, the organization has provided more than $325,000 in financial support for its students.
EB 211 president and co-founder Nancy Robb, a former superintendent of Township High School District 211, told the gathering she was particularly impressed with the group’s success in light of the challenges due to the pandemic. “I am convinced our students are strong today, and I’m proud they have developed the resilience and determination skills that they need for tomorrow’s opportunities,” Robb said.
While only about 10 percent of first-generation students in the bottom quarter for income graduate in six years, according to a Pell Institute report on higher learning, 70 percent of EB 211’s Class of 2016 students earned a college degree in five years. “That’s an amazing, amazing number,” Robb said. “Our student graduation rate exceeded our wildest, wildest, wildest expectations.”
The evening featured a keynote address by Harper College’s president, Dr. Avis Proctor, as well as inspirational remarks by three recent EB 211 students who earned their college degrees: Liseth Pozo, Yemariam Eyob, and Guillermo Quillo. The program was dedicated in memory of Robert Ingraham, a founding board member and avid supporter. Ingraham’s family was on hand to celebrate the announcement of several renewable scholarships, worth a total of $10,000, for four EB 211 students.
Dr. Proctor, who shared that she also was the first in her family to earn a college degree in her family, called EB 211 a “transformational game-changer in our community.” She praised the students for their accomplishments. “What a truly unprecedented year it has been,” she said. You inspire us with the perseverance you’ve shown to advance your educational journey while managing the tremendous challenges this pandemic has presented.”
Like many of the first-generation college students in attendance, Proctor faced many challenges while trying to escape a life of poverty. Born on St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she was raised by her grandmother, who had 13 children. A visit from a high school counselor and a decision to attend a college information session over a homecoming game led to her being awarded a full undergraduate scholarship. “What a life-changing thing that was,” she said. “Education has the power to change lives.”
Pozo, a Northern Illinois University graduate in accounting with a minor in marketing, started her college career at Harper. The Schaumburg High alum lauded EB 211’s mentorship program and praised her mentor, Lynn Ridge, for her support. She encouraged other first-generation college students to seek guidance in navigating all aspects of their college experience. While she plans to continue her studies and become a CPA, Pozo currently works at a local firm in Wheaton.
Eyob, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earned a bachelor’s degree in Community Health. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health at Emory University and then consider law school. Those goals, she said, would not be possible without the support of her EB 211 mentor Sonia Perkins Mata, as well as the scholarships, laptops and other resources she was granted. “When I entered this program as a rather shy, introverted high school graduate, I underestimated how much EB 211 would change my college career,” she said.
Quillo provided the closing remarks just days before he was set to begin his new career as an associate systems engineer for the Collins Aerospace Commercial Avionics team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The former Palatine High grad earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Illinois after beginning his college journey at Harper College.
“The courage my parents had in coming to a different country in search of greater opportunities for our family inspired me to be the best I can be,” he said, adding he was grateful for the steady support he received from mentor Gerald Fitzgerald, a retired banking executive.
He referenced the inspiring storyline from “In The Heights,” the Disney film and Broadway play written by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the struggles that immigrants face. “My dream was to design and build airplanes and spaceships,” he said. “Because of EB 211, I’m literally going to be living my dream now. “Your investment in our careers, in our futures and in our dreams is what fuels us,” he said. “Your time and investment are changing lives.