Very few of the people I encounter today in my role at the U.S. Department of State know what my childhood was like. I grew up in East Harlem, New York City during the late 1970s and 1980s – a time when a Latino youth living in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation was not expected to graduate from high school, much less attend college and go on to earn a law degree.
When I was 12 years old, an industrialist named Eugene M. Lang took a chance on me. He was scheduled to speak at my sixth grade graduation in 1981. On the way to the podium, Mr. Lang learned that three-quarters of the students sitting before him would probably never finish high school. So he made a promise: he would pay college tuition for all 61 of the kids in my class, if we could show him a high school diploma.
Since then, Mr. Lang’s efforts have evolved into the “I Have A Dream” Foundation. Since its inception, the foundation has supported thousands of students across the country – from elementary school all the way through college. Like Mr. Lang, the program goes beyond the classroom: it works with students after school, on the weekends, and over the summers. It invests not only in academics, but also in physical, social, and emotional health. That’s what makes the difference in getting kids into and through college.
The “I Have A Dream” Foundation takes its name after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s indelible words at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Mr. Lang never forgot the words of Dr. King from August 1963. When he sponsored my graduating sixth grade class, he called us “Dreamers,” to embody the hope and aspirations of this and future generations.
Personally, the “I Have a Dream” Foundation made me believe that a college education was possible. I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, matriculated in Mr. Lang’s alma mater, Swarthmore College, and went on to receive my Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
Today, the “I Have A Dream” Foundation is helping to shine a spotlight nationally on the issue of educational support for low-income families. Through a series of public service announcements (PSAs) with CBS Cares, big name celebrities LL Cool J, Mayim Bialik, Luis Guzman, Jeff Probst, Shemar Moore, Tom Selleck, and Tea Leoni have gotten behind the organization.
You can view the PSAs here.
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that just nine percent of students from low-income families receive a bachelor’s degree – less than one in ten. But students who work with the “I Have A Dream” Foundation nearly double their odds.
As the “I Have A Dream” Foundation approaches its 35th anniversary, it has turned nearly 17,000 students across the country into Dreamers. Over the next five years, the foundation aims to double its affiliate network from 16 to 32 locations around the country and triple the total number of active Dreamers from about 3,200 to 10,000.
These are kids who have the cards stacked against them. But I am living proof of what can happen when you invest in someone at an early age. Being a Dreamer has truly been one of the most positive experiences in my life. And the college education I received has been essential in helping me get to where I am today.
I have no doubt that future groups of Dreamers will make good on the opportunity that this foundation has opened up to them. Just as I did.
Martinez is a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State and a member of the first-ever class with the "I Have A Dream" Foundation.