Philadelphia Futures celebrates 30 years of helping students get to and through college

Another milestone: the first group from the six-year-old College Connection program graduated college this year.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Demaro Ricketts put it simply.

“Before Philadelphia Futures, I wasn’t sure if I was going to college. After Philadelphia Futures, I realized going to college is a must. From then on, Philadelphia Futures helped me every step of the way.”

Cassidy Arrington had a similar story. “I would say that the biggest thing Philadelphia Futures did was help motivate me,” she said. “They were very patient and on your case in the way they need to be and the way you need them to be. … I appreciate them pushing me to be where I am.”

Ricketts and Arrington were two of the 89 high school graduates in attendance at the event last week where Philadelphia Futures celebrated the students it had helped get through high school and college.

This year, 100 percent of high school students in their Sponsor-A-Scholar and College Connection programs have graduated and have been accepted into college.

Ricketts just graduated from Parkway Northwest High School and has accepted a full ride to Gettysburg College. Arrington graduated from Central High School and will attend Yale University in the fall.

This was the 30th anniversary for Sponsor-A-Scholar, in which 9th graders who would be the first in their families to graduate from college receive mentoring to help them through high school. Each student is matched with a mentor and receives $6,000 toward college expenses from their sponsor, as well as help in getting enough financial aid from colleges so they can graduate debt-free.

Philadelphia Futures was also celebrating its first cohort of college graduates from College Connection, a six-year-old program that helps first-generation students starting in their junior year in high school and also assists with college financial planning.

“It didn’t hit me until 11th grade that it was real,” said Kiara Lynn Garcia, who went through the Sponsor-A-Scholar program. “And that was because we have to go on college trips, meaning we had to research colleges of interest and select dates for tours.”

Garcia just graduated from Millersville University with a bachelor’s degree in international studies, as well as minors in Spanish and in government and political affairs. She attended Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School.

“It’s all unreal for first-gen students,” she said. “If anything, they helped make it real.”

Arcadia University graduate Brandon Catala said: “They were definitely a huge backbone financially and in terms of mentoring. It was such a huge benefit … having a program like this behind me.”

Catala, who attended Northeast High, is one of the 25 members of the first cohort of College Connection students who were at the event. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

“Shari [Cumberbatch, Futures College Success adviser] helped calm me down and show me that it is possible,” he said. “Having that person there, answering any questions you might have, is really personal. There is more of a family relation built with many of the people here.”

The family atmosphere is an important aspect of Philadelphia Futures. The organization creates a sense of community and support throughout its programs.

“We support each other academically and emotionally,” Ricketts said.

Arrington said, “Futures helps foster that [family dynamic] through the programs they offer outside of the classroom as well. Futures, at the office, hosts a number of clubs and events that help foster our family.”

Philadelphia Futures offers a wide variety of support, ranging from finding ways to make the application process easier to exploring how to make college more affordable.

Garcia spoke about how one of her most difficult challenges was being the first in the family to go to college. She said her family members knew nothing about college-going and could not offer guidance. Instead, she learned from Philadelphia Futures.

“As I entered college, I knew from freshman year what I wanted, which included study abroad, leadership opportunities on campus [being a residential assistant], and generally knowing what to look for on campus,” Garcia said.

Catala said: “Futures made [college] more of a reality instead of an idea. They helped me going to college, preparing for college, applying for college, getting scholarships, helping me understand class schedules, [and] offering advice into career-building.”

Ricketts and Arrington also spoke about Young Men’s Initiative and Young Women Rising, two programs geared toward making connections, becoming financially literate, and raising awareness about issues such as masculinity and cultivating women’s voices. They also discussed outside funding opportunities like Suit Her Up and Suit Him Up, which provide money for students to buy business casual and business formal clothing. Futures students can access them through Dress for Success appeals.

Ricketts and Arrington spoke about the tangible rewards that came out of Futures and how the programs do a good job not just preparing them through the college application process, but also preparing them by providing physical resources.

At the ceremony, the organization also took time to honor Marciene Mattleman, the founder of Philadelphia Futures, who died in March. They gave her a posthumous Hats Off to You award, which is dedicated to those who present outstanding, long-term, and significant contributions to the mission of Philadelphia Futures.

The new Marciene Mattleman Perseverance Award is dedicated to the students whose diligence enables them to complete college despite personal hardships.

It was awarded this year to two students, Raegan Gawronski, who graduated from Gettysburg College, and Ebony Brown, who graduated from Bloomsburg University.

As the high school students move on to their next big step, they spoke a bit about what they were planning to do. Ricketts is interested in being a business consultant or a sports psychologist, leading him to want to study psychology. Arrington is uncertain about a major, but wants to delve into women’s studies, gender studies, black studies, and psychology.

Arrington said she is looking forward to being able to concentrate on her interests. “One thing about college is that I can learn as much as I want about what I want,” she said, “rather than a little bit about everything.”