uAspire Massachusetts Celebrates Five High-Profile, First-Generation College Graduates

By: Chris Loney | Tuesday, March 11, 2014

March 11th, 2014 / Boston, MA – On February 27th uAspire Massachusetts celebrated five “First Ones” – community and business leaders who were the first in their family to graduate from college – at the annual uAspire First One Awards (presented by the Lavine family), an event to raise money for the non-profit’s college affordability programming in Massachusetts. Receiving awards were Jack Connors (Connors Family Office), Nick Fyntrilakis (MassMutual Financial Group), Waleska Lugo-Dejesus (of Springfield), Dr. Paula Johnson (Brigham and Women’s Hospital), and Mayor Thomas Menino (City of Boston).The five winners delivered stories of college struggle, overcoming adversity, and ultimately success to an audience of 250 at Boston’s Omni Parker House Hotel, raising greatly needed funds to support uAspire’s Massachusetts programming for low-income youth. A video of their stories, produced by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, can be found on uAspire’s event website.

uAspire CEO Bob Giannino-Racine, uAspire Massachusetts Executive Director Gaby King Morse, former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd, and uAspire student Belkis Frias were among the speakers for the night’s event, delivering messages of hope for the thousands of low-income students who struggle to pay for four, or even two years of college.

“uAspire is committed to creating a society where all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential by graduating from college, regardless of their families’ financial resources,” said King Morse during her address, “Regardless of whether their parents went to college before them.”

This last point is the lynchpin of uAspire’s programming, as well as its biggest challenge in serving low-income students. The child of a college graduate has an 80% chance of also going to college, a milestone that increases lifetime earnings by over $1 million—an exponential return on investment if done in a financially smart way. Yet navigating financial aid, identifying a financial safety school, and making sure that students have the knowledge to choose and enroll in a school that is a good fit financially, academically, and socially is extremely difficult.
Family support and encouragement was a theme of the night, pointed out by Wayne Budd as he introduced each winner: “Early on, my belief in education- like many of us – came from parents, or a trusted mentor.” Each winner in turn listed the influence of their parents, teachers, and other family members in driving them to pursue their education.

Though they are supported, encouraged, and loved, students and families sometimes lack the financial tools to properly navigate the system without amassing crushing debt. “My dad thought that good grades were all I needed and that it would lead me into my college of choice”, said Frias, a sophomore at Salem State University and uAspire advisee. “When I asked him for his tax information to file my financial aid documents, which were many different forms, he was puzzled. I did my best to explain to him what the financial aid process entailed but the more that I explained to him, the more confused he got.”

uAspire’s programming hinges on its trained college affordability counselors, placed in high schools and community-based organizations in Boston, Lawrence, Springfield, and most recently Fall River. “A majority of our work is done by meeting students one-on-one. The student is our client, and their dreams are our dreams” King Morse explained. “But we don’t believe in blindly reaching for the stars. We make sure that every student goes toward their dream with a realistic financial plan, a back-up financial plan, and a phone number to call.”

For over thirty years uAspire has relied on its one-on-one advising to get low-income students to college. In the past five years it has added programming for 9th-11th graders to engage students in the financial aid process early, and workshops and advisors for college students to keep them aware of the necessary steps while in school. “We want students and schools to know that we aren’t just the FAFSA people anymore”, said King Morse. “We want to get students through college, not just in the door.”

With college debt surpassing credit card debt this year at an astounding $1 trillion, it is difficult to think of a more formidable obstacle to economic and social mobility than college affordability. In Massachusetts alone at least 68% of jobs will require some postsecondary education beyond high school by 2018. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, college going rates for low income high school graduates in Massachusetts were at a mere 62% in 2011. What is more astounding is college graduation rates—of those 62%, only a fraction a will graduate from 2- or 4-year colleges within 6 years.

Like other parts of the country, Massachusetts is facing roadblocks and inequity when it comes to higher education. Yet organizations like uAspire are helping to guide individual students through the process with notable results—namely a $1/$61 return on investment. Last year alone uAspire unlocked over $90 million in financial aid for its students, and projects even more for the class of 2014—numbers that are convincing to foundations, corporations, and individuals focused on slowing the growth of inequality in Massachusetts. Among the biggest donors of the night were The Lavine Family Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Citizens Bank Foundation, Highland Street Foundation, Diane and Neil Exter, Bob Karam, Lewis Family Foundation, Liberty Mutual Insurance, State Street Foundation, and The Boston Foundation. uAspire also relies on the hundreds of donations, small and large, that it receives outside of the First One Awards to support Massachusetts students’ college dreams. If you would like to contribute, you may do so here.




The uAspire First One Awards are given to leaders throughout Massachusetts who are first-generation college graduates. Spanning across business, government, education and nonprofits, uAspire First One Award Winners have made a meaningful impact on the lives of others. What brings uAspire First Ones together is their common experience of being part of the first generation in their family to earn a college degree. They represent the power of higher education to propel individuals and families out of poverty and toward lives of opportunity. More information can be found at here.

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