College bound students study in English class. Photo: Morgan Therrien
By Morgan Therrien
Alex Diaz grew up surrounded by crime and gang violence. Now, he is working toward a future in auto mechanics. This new future is possible after he was introduced to College Bound Dorchester in 2013.
Diaz, now 31, says “I like being able to share my story with others.” The former gang member, who served eight years in prison for past crimes, will attend Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston in the fall. He is the first one from his family to go to college.
College Bound Dorchester is an organization dedicated to giving people like Diaz a chance to turn their lives around and pursue an education. In 2009, Mark Culliton started the program to change the community, not just the people in the program.
Culliton and his staff of roughly 90 members have built College Bound Dorchester into a life changing program that has led to an 85 percent drop in recidivism among its graduates. Roughly 30 percent of College Bound’s students graduate from a 2-year institution, while about half of all students go on to receive their bachelor’s degree.
“I love every single one of our students, but it’s not about them,” Culliton says, adding he hopes the city will someday notice the community changes.
Since 2009, Culliton’s program has raised $18 million in private and public funds, the website says. College Bound Dorchester also receives support from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University, which evaluate the impact the program is having.
As of this year, there are 65 prospective students interested in applying to the program, but only 10 slots available. Culliton said he wants to raise as much money as he can to accommodate the growing program. Culliton said he is thrilled about the progress his program is making, and said “I love watching people’s reactions to my students.”
The program runs year round, but is busier during the summer. “This is a world-changing opportunity. I believe in the power of education to create change, and that if you change the community, you can create real change for everyone,” said Culliton.
Students who go through the program don’t just learn educational lessons. They are reworking their thinking so they aren’t seeing themselves as an estranged figure from society, but are noticing their own potential.
Many graduates will pursue a career in education or human services, allowing them to give back to the community, said Culliton. Several return to work at College Bound Dorchester as advisers.
One of the unique aspects of the program is its ability to constantly go against and challenge society’s beliefs, Culliton stated. “The ones that are most problematic are actually the solution. Gang members are the next Gandhis if we believe in them and their capability in creating change,” he said.