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They Have a Dream

Program Coordinator, Natalie Corujo and Executive Director, Thierry Cazeau
Program Coordinator, Natalie Corujo and Executive Director, Thierry Cazeau
March 8, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, and in 1963, he recited an historical speech about it.

Nearly 20 years later, Eugene Lang also had a dream. In 1981, he visited P.S. 121 in Harlem—his former elementary school—to meet the graduating sixth graders.  

He wanted to tell the students to work hard, but the principal pulled him aside and told Lang that, unfortunately, three-fourths of the school’s students would most likely not graduate from high school.

Surprised, Lang promised college tuition assistance to every sixth grader who graduated high school. He told the 61 students at his alma mater that he was always inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, urging the students from the class of 1981 to dream their own dreams. Lang vowed to do whatever he could to help these students along the way.

As he got to know his “Dreamers,” Lang realized they needed more help than he could give them. He hired a Program Coordinator and enlisted the support of a community-based organization to provide additional services and support to the children through high school graduation—all the while, Lang maintained close relationships with  his Dreamers.

As he got to know his “Dreamers,” Lang realized they needed more help than he could give them. He hired a Program Coordinator and enlisted the support of a community-based organization to provide additional services and support to the children through high school graduation—all the while, Lang maintained close relationships with  his Dreamers.

Press coverage generates buzz

A front-page story in The New York Times and a segment on “60 Minutes” led to national attention about Lang and his Dreamers.

As a result, in 1986, Lang formed the national “I Have A Dream” Foundation, launching a new generation of “I Have A Dream” programs.

Since then, almost 200 “I Have A Dream” (IHAD) programs have operated in 27 states, Washington, D.C., and even New Zealand, serving over 15,000 Dreamers.

The national foundation is still based in New York City—where it all began.

How the foundation works

Since its inception, The “I Have A Dream” Foundation works to ensure that all children have the opportunity to pursue higher education. Foundation staffers and donors aim to empower children in low-income communities to achieve higher education by providing them with guaranteed tuition support.

They are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and habits they need to gain entry to succeed in college and beyond.

According to the Foundation’s Web site, while only 50% of students in low-income communities are expected to finish high school, and only one out of seven will graduate from college, many Dreamers have gone on to become teachers, social workers, secretaries, scholar-athletes, lawyers, and more.

Lang’s legacy

So, what happened to Lang’s original 61 Dreamers? Of the 54 who remain in contact with the organization, more than 90% have earned their high school diplomas or GED certificates; and 60% have pursued higher education.

In fact, many Dreamers have attended, or currently attend, BMCC.

 “Many of our Dreamers choose BMCC as a starting point for their college goals,” says Hilary Cramer, Communications and Development Manager at “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York Metro Area. “The CUNY system generally provides great options for our students and BMCC has been one of the top schools attended by our Dreamers.”

Tuition assistance

The "I Have a Dream" Foundation provides “last dollar tuition assistance” for college. This means, that after applying for financial aid and state subsidies, the Foundation pays the balance of the Dreamers’ tuition.

Natalie Corujo (’06) is a Program Manager for “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York Metro Area. She’s also a former student “Dreamer” and a graduate of BMCC.

After she obtained her associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, Corujo graduated from Hunter College, then found full-time work with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

“I was nervous about college because I attended an all-girls high school,” recalls Corujo. “But everyone was supportive at BMCC and I liked the diversity of the students and faculty. For me, BMCC was the first step towards my four-year degree.”

Corujo grew up in the Elliot-Chelsea Projects. Students from various projects throughout NYC are generally approached by "I Have a Dream" program directors, and that’s how they are introduced to the program.

“My parents liked that "I Have a Dream" encouraged and supported higher education for free,” she recalls. “I’m very fortunate to come from a family of college-educated women. I was also attracted to the idea of taking enrichment classes.”

So, Corujo became a Dreamer in third grade, and remains one to this day.

“'Once a Dreamer, always dreamer,’ is our motto, so I’m still considered a Dreamer,” she says.

Not only does the "I Have a Dream" Foundation help students with tutoring, college prep and enrichment, but it also helps students secure jobs. Corujo recalls that her first job was at an accounting firm. She then worked at the National Dance Institute while attending BMCC.

Special sponsors

Every “I Have a Dream” program has a sponsor.  When Corujo was young, the Chelsea-Elliott program’s sponsor was Jeff Gural, chairman of a commercial real estate firm, in addition to four other sponsors. 

Because Corujo was a Dreamer, Gural paid a portion of her high school tuition. Then, Gural and the other sponsors helped Corujo financially while she attended BMCC and Hunter.

“I was asked to get involved with the Foundation by Eugene Lang, and I felt it was important to help level the playing field so these kids could have a good chance to succeed and hopefully go on to college,” explains Gural. “For me, it has been the most rewarding experience of my life, since very few people can reach ‘the end of their lives’ knowing that they helped change the life of another person.” Corujo and Gural remain friends today.

BMCC is ‘a great experience’

Sean Greene is a current BMCC student…and a Dreamer. “I joined in fifth grade at P.S. 156,” says the Small Business Entrepreneurship major. “I liked meeting new people and having fun. Overall, "I Have a Dream" was a great experience.”

Greene credits "I Have a Dream" for keeping his grades up, and “keeping me focused and out of trouble.” He currently works as a building supervisor in the Bronx and takes evening classes at BMCC.

BMCC’s “laid back environment” provided Greene with “an introduction to college life,” he says. “I don't really have a favorite professor, but my favorite’s thus far have been caring and want their students to succeed.”

After he graduates, Greene hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree and “start a fashion line someday,” he says.  “That’s my ‘thing’—fashion.”

Broadening horizons

BMCC alumna Antoinette Little (‘08), became a ‘Dreamer’ in the third grade, as part of the Ravenswood Housing projects in Long Island City.

 “Being a Dreamer at a young age was good for ‘growth,’ and made me look ‘outside the box’ when meeting new people,” she says. “I only really knew my family and the people in my community, so meeting new people and hearing their stories really helped broaden my horizons.”

Little was a Liberal Arts major at BMCC. “When I was in high school I went through some typical teenage rockiness and wasn’t really looking forward to college,” she recalls. “However, BMCC kept me grounded and I was determined to improve my grades. I took a creative writing class I really enjoyed and took advantage of the tutoring opportunities available at the Learning Resource Center.”

After she received her associate’s degree, “I had no intention of stopping,” says Little. “Academically, I wanted to keep going. I was excited to graduate from BMCC, and felt very accomplished and even more inspired to pursue a Bachelor’s degree.”

Next steps

Little currently attends Hofstra University, where she is majoring in International Business. “I Have a Dream” covered her BMCC tuition and covers half her tuition at Hofstra. When not in class, she works full-time at a brokerage firm.

“After I graduate from Hofstra, I’m interested in joining the Peace Corps and doing overseas work. I’m actually going to Cape Town in June with a volunteer group, and will be working at an orphanage,” says Little.

Thierry Cazeau, LMSW, is the Executive Director of “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York Metro Area. “Watching the Dreamers grow and develop over the years, and seeing them apply the lessons they learned at “I Have a Dream” in order to successfully graduate from high school and college, is truly a rewarding experience,” he says.

Alumni appreciation

Corujo says when she was younger; she didn’t immediately realize how lucky she was “to be a Dreamer.”

Now that she’s a staffer at “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York Metro Area, working with the next generation of Dreamers, she tells them to keep their eye on their prize—whatever it may be.

 “Despite life challenges, it’s important to maintain optimism and not lose sight of a goal,” she tells today’s students. “Not only do I have my day-to-day responsibilities, but I also have a responsibility to uphold as a Dreamer alumni working with rising Dreamers.”

Hilary Cramer, Communications and Development Manager at “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York Metro Area, says she “loves” the program.

 “We really do whatever it takes to make our Dreamers successful and expose them to new opportunities,” she says. “Dreamers don’t know how to swim and we have an opportunity to take them surfing? Let’s do it.”

Support from BMCC

Since its inception, BMCC has been supportive of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

“The mission of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation is parallel to BMCC's own: to encourage and sustain full access to higher education for those who seek it,” says Patricia Splendore, Director of Annual Fund and Alumni Affairs. “Many BMCC staffers and faculty members have donated to the “I Have a Dream” Foundation this year through CUNY’s Annual Community Giving campaign.” 

And, of course, current and alumni Dreamers express their appreciation for the leader who publicity stated he had a dream to dream—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It’s empowering to know that such a great man is still inspiring so many people, generations later,” says Little.

 

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • BMCC is a stepping-stone for many ‘Dreamers’
  • The Foundation was created with the intention to help students graduate from high school and college
  • Students from various housing projects are often asked to consider joining “I Have a Dream.”

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