By Karli Barnett

BOCA RATON (CBSMiami) – Florida Atlantic University has launched a program to combat the startling statistic that 89 percent of low-income, first-generation students will leave college without a degree.

Cecilia Peters is a role model, guidance counselor and cheerleader to FAU students Luz Brito and Valeria Tineo.

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“She’s kind of like a mom away from home,” said Tineo. “I call her and I’m like, ‘I need help with this… I need some advice, I need some guidance.’ And we go to our office. Actually, we call it our office, our office is the Barnes and Nobles across the street.”

Brito and Tineo are sophomores in the Kelly Strul Emerging Scholars Program created by President John Kelly and first lady Carolyn Kelly, as well as Boca Raton philanthropists Aubrey and Sally Strul, in 2017.

The scholarship funds and provides support to students who are the first-generation in their families to go to college. Fifty percent are from a different country.

“Luz was my Cuban who was so shy,” said Peters. “Now we have to ask her to quiet down.”

The program centers on pairing the scholars with a knowledgeable, energetic mentor like Peters, whose advice lasts the entire four years.

“They are truly just uninformed about the culture and what to do and how to navigate college life,” said Peters.

The trio meets to chat over coffee and get help with homework in the library. Peters checks in via text weekly.

She’s provided them with key advice about laundry, roommates, career focus and the importance of internships.

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“I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. It was a marketing intern position and I really wasn’t thrilled with it,” said Tineo. “I talked to Cecilia about it and so I stuck with it and now I have a part-time job with them and I have a secure job when I graduate.”

Tineo went from unsure intern to employee to recruiter, bringing Brito into the marketing agency as well.

“It’s actually thanks to Val that she got me the internship,” Brito said.

To secure the scholarship, the girls had to submit a videotaped essay – and then wait.

Knowing what this meant for them and their future, the day they learned of the opportunity was pure elation.

“Now that I’m in college, first one in my whole family, whether it’s my cousins or my second cousins, no one has ever gone to college,” said Brito. “So it was very exciting. A lot of my family is very proud of me.”

The program is currently accepting applications for the class of 2024.

The scholarship offers academically talented, first-generation, low-income college students the opportunity to graduate free of debt from FAU.

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Applications must be submitted by Saturday, Feb. 1.

Karli Barnett