In the basement of St. Cecilia Parish in the Back Bay, the men and women of College Bound Dorchester flipped their tassels to the other side of their mortarboards and cheered.
Few people who knew the 41 graduates as they struggled through their teenage and young-adult years thought they would make it past high school. And many of those who graduated Wednesday night had dropped out, but are now heading to college.
College Bound focuses its attention on those considered unlikely to succeed. They seek out dropouts, gang members, inmates, and others with setbacks in their past and aggressively push them toward college.
Since its founding in 2009, the nonprofit has helped 63 students enroll in college after earning their HiSet certification, or high school equivalency diploma.
“In almost all cases what it is, is there have been barriers to their linear path to growth . . . they’ve had to find their own way to be successful,” said Mark Culliton, chief executive of College Bound.
If a student makes it easy for the program’s teachers and completes his or her studies with no missteps, then they are not the kind of student the program wants, he said.
The paths taken by the students to reach Wednesday’s graduation ceremony are filled with heartbreak and hard choices.
‘I am so proud about myself because I struggled so hard.’Sanjoana Fernandes-Centieo, 34, who completed the College Bound program while working two jobs and is now headed to Bunker Hill Community College
Miguel Fuentes, 19, of Dorchester, has lost nine family members, including his mother and father. Several of his loved ones died violently.
By the end of his freshman year of high school, he had been suspended seven times. He had to repeat the eighth grade, and would have had to attend the 10th grade for a third time if he had not dropped out of school.
At times, he said, he would think to himself “my life isn’t really good anymore, I don’t have a purpose.”
But even on days he was dismissed from school, as he walked along listening to music and not wanting to go home or anywhere else, he could recognize his lingering desire to go back and complete a class he had struggled in.
College Bound “is not full of people who don’t want to try or don’t want to work,” he said after the ceremony. “College Bound is really recovery for your life.”
Next week, Fuentes will begin classes at Bunker Hill Community College. He hopes to transfer from there to the University of Massachusetts Lowell and study meteorology.
Emely Narvaez, 25, of Dorchester, completed College Bound while raising her son, Nathan, now 4. In the five years it took her to earn entrance to Bunker Hill this fall, Nathan had already undergone two heart surgeries and a spate of other operations.
“You do it for yourself, to better your child’s life,” she said about the program. “If he can pull through everything that’s happened to him, so can I.”
After accepting her certificate of graduation, Narvaez returned to sit among her fellow graduates. Nathan ran up, hugged her, and sat on her lap. She took the blue mortarboard with the orange tassel off her head and put it on top of his.
Several other graduates also had children, which brought responsibilities seemingly far weightier than school.
Sanjoana Fernandes-Centieo, 34, of Dorchester, arrived in the United States speaking little English and with no family. She completed College Bound while working jobs at two different Dunkin’ Donuts and caring for her daughter with the help of her husband.
She, too, will be attending Bunker Hill this fall.
“I am so proud about myself because I struggled so hard,” she said. “It’s not the end, it’s just one step to continue my education.”
The speakers Wednesday night charged the graduates with a task beyond their own betterment.
“I want you to be the reason that somebody can persist and move on and graduate,” said keynote speaker Greg Shell, from the investment firm of GMO LLC and who is a community activist and supporter of the College Bound program.