Making it through college and beyond as a first-gen college student from West Baltimore

Date: August 11, 2015

By Verlando Brown, Special Assistant to the President at United Way of Central Maryland

Growing up in West Baltimore, my environment was filled with drugs, crime, boarded-up homes and streets overflowing with trash. Education was so important to my mother, who was raising me by herself. She didn’t want me to end up on the corner selling drugs and landing in jail like many of my peers. She believed the only way to achieve success and to get out of these harsh conditions was through a good education.

Because of my mother’s influence on me, I made the decision at a very young age to stay focused on my education.

I attended Frederick Douglass High School – one of the toughest public schools across the city at the time. Kids who hadn’t already dropped out or been suspended were unmotivated to learn and fighting with each other and teachers. In addition to my mother, my high school guidance counselor constantly encouraged me to go to college. I’ll always remember the day I found out I got accepted to Towson University, becoming the first in my family to go to college. When I ran home to my mother and showed her the acceptance letter, she immediately burst into tears.

College was a big culture shock. I had a very hard time adjusting because I hadn’t acquired cultural capital that my college peers had. I wasn’t taught how to prepare for college. Learning everything myself was mentally and emotionally frustrating to the point I became depressed and developed a low-self esteem. There were times I wanted to drop out of college but after meeting fellow students at Towson’s Cultural Diversity Center, I began to develop a support system. It was by no means a “fix-all” but it sure helped me get through times of doubt and uncertainty.

In December 2011, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I’m so thankful to all of my mentors for helping me make it through. I’m now on my way to getting my graduate degree in human services administration this year from the University of Baltimore.

This summer I visited the White House to tell my story. I was invited on behalf of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, which encourages youth to attend college. Eric Waldo, executive director of the initiative, gathered leaders from the White House and U.S. Department of Education to hear about my story, the work I’ve done around increasing the number of first-generation college students and how they can support me in my career. Eric also asked me if I would team up with him and the First Lady as a “thought partner” to help them take the Reach Higher Initiative to the next level. What an honor it was to be asked. Everyone who met with me said that they’re willing to lend a hand in my efforts. I am forever grateful for this opportunity.

I’m now working with the United Way of Central Maryland team as a special assistant to the organization’s president and CEO, Mark Furst. I’m thrilled to be helping United Way further their education programs and advocating for opportunities for struggling youth in central Maryland.

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For more than 90 years, United Way of Central Maryland has been improving lives in the communities it serves: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Harford County and Howard County, Maryland.

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