Nonprofit changes teens’ minds about college education

Each February, Rocking the Boat takes its juniors on the road and hosts a tour of New York colleges. This year, a group of about 20 traveled to SUNY Albany, Syracuse University, SUNY Canton and St. Lawrence University.

A group of high school juniors from Rocking the Boat touring SUNY Albany.

Not all that long ago, 17-year-old Francisco Carbrera viewed college as a punishment – just more school after he was done with school. But in these past months at Rocking the Boat, where he works as a boatbuilding apprentice, his thoughts on the subject have begun to shift.

“Now I’m thinking of two or three different colleges to go to,” said Carbrera.

Carbrera credits Rocking the Boat and its counselors for changing his thinking, and putting him on a path that might just well change the direction of his life. The boat building program, located next to Hunts Point Riverside Park, offers free technical training, paid apprenticeships, and social services with the ultimate goal to help teens attend post-high school education. That help includes hosting representatives from colleges and guiding students through the application and financial aid processes once they are in the 11th grade.

Participants at Rocking the Boat enter as freshmen or sophomores, choosing one of three after-school programs: boatbuilding, environmental science or sailing. As students move through the program, program directors hope they will gain skills they can apply to anything.

“That may be self-advocacy or confidence or completing a project,” said Stevi Feinberg, the job skills social worker, “anything they can take with them to the outside.”

For graduates of its program, the organization had always offered the chance for a $2,500 scholarship. Now, thanks to a new grant from the New York Community Trust, the organization is able to offer a need-based scholarship of up to $7,500 a year for qualified applicants to study applied physical science or technology at either a two- or four-year college.

“The majority of our kids are college bound,” said Adam Green, the organization’s founder and executive director.

Local students should take note: while Rocking the Boat is open to all comers, it is now prioritizing applicants from Hunts Point and Longwood. Due to residents’ proximity to the workshop on Edgewater Road, “those are the families we can really get to know,” said Elizabeth Lindgren, the director of social work.

Each February, Rocking the Boat takes its juniors on the road and hosts a tour of New York colleges. This year, a group of about 20 traveled to SUNY Albany, Syracuse University, SUNY Canton and St. Lawrence University. Staying at local hotels, tour participants visited campuses and dorms, met with college representatives and Rocking the Boat alumni.

Devin Serrano, 16, said Syracuse University impressed him, and the tour made him realize that a lot of schools are looking for students like him. “Even at the toughest of colleges, I could still get in.”

All four juniors we spoke to said they enjoyed the trip. The food at SUNY Albany’s cafeteria got multiple raves, as did walking around the campuses and sitting in the classrooms. “I felt like I was in college,” said Yanil Graciano, 16. Randy Atkinson, 16, said he was surprised by how many people he’d met who were originally from the Bronx, and the diversity of the student body. “We saw people of all different races,” said Atkinson. “Nobody was judging.”

“My college career started at Rocking the Boat,” said Bubacarr Fofana, 22, currently a junior at Saint Lawrence University. Fofana and fellow Saint Lawrence student, Edwin LeBron, 17, were among the Rocking the Boat alumni who met with this year’s touring apprentices. Fofana and LeBron were both in the sailing program. It’s an experience that Fofana has continued onto the varsity crew team. LeBron intends to join the team next semester.

Both men said that Rocking the Boat connected them to St. Lawrence’s advisor for the Higher Education Opportunity Program. In Fofana’s case, Rocking the Boat even helped him through his applications to gain status as a permanent resident.

For Carbrera, a turn in his thinking came when he learned about the Landing School, a two-year college in Maine that offers majors in the maritime trades. “ I could get a degree for doing what I’m doing right now,” Carbrera said.

For Atkinson, that turning point in his thinking came with his decision on a major. He credits the program for boosting his confidence which led him to try new activities at school. Through those new activities, he refined his natural aptitude in math. Then, a counselor suggested he investigate accounting as a major. He said, recalling a tone of surprise, “I thought to myself, ‘I could be an accountant??’”

The program has impressive stats. According to Green, 100 percent of alumni have completed high school or the equivalent. Furthermore, Green said, tracking alumni six years later finds that 80 percent of them have either graduated from college or are still attending. “We’ll do everything we can to make it possible for a kid who wants to participate to participate,” he said.
Bubacarr Fofana couldn’t agree more. “Every single step of my college application process, I had Rocking the Boat there with me,” said Fofana, “Joining the Rocking the Boat family is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”