Last week, leading college completion program College Track, hosted a Launch to College graduation ceremony celebrating the inaugural graduating class of i.am College Track students.

Every year, College Track celebrates its high school graduates as they continue their journey towards a college degree students and their families are joined by community leaders and College Track supporters for a graduation ceremony and reception to honor and recognize the graduating class for their academic achievements and personal resilience over the past four years. For i.am College Track, the May 19, event was particularly momentous as it marked the first graduating class since the program opened its doors in Boyle Heights in 2012.

“From the moment I joined College Track, the journey to discovering my potential and harnessing my voice took flight. I was surrounded by students who I connected with, who shared a common dream and who supported one another,” said graduating student Adela Lopez, choking back tears as she addressed a captive audience. “For the first time, I had tangible proof that hard work and perseverance does pay off. I proved to myself that I cared about my education.”

“Fifty percent of students from Boyle Heights never complete high school and only 5 percent of Boyle Heights residents hold a four-year college degree. With a staggering 100 percent of i.am college track’s inaugural class of Roosevelt High School Students bound for college in the fall, this phenomenal group of young men and women underscore the transformational power of College Track’s programming.

Joining students and College Track leadership on stage, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke about his roots in the Boyle Heights community and stressed the importance of programs like College Track in challenging expectations in vulnerable communities.“You’re growing up and coming of age in a moment where people are talking about building up walls to keep us away. What College Track has done is build a bridge and remind us of who we are.”

L.A City Councilmember José Huizar, who grew up in Boyle Heights and today represents the neighborhood, echoed Garcetti’s pride. “It is always toughest to be the first, to lead so others can follow,” Huizar told the crowd, “but that is what the Boyle Heights College Track graduating class is – they are not just our future leaders – they are the leaders of today.”

Founded in partnership with the i.am.angel Foundation, The California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase, i.am College Track has provided support to over 260 students from Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles with the resources and guidance they need to get into and graduate from college. 

Global music artist, entrepreneur and i.am.angel Foundation President, will.i.am, was honored with a Hero of the Year Award for his tireless dedication to transforming lives and creating opportunities for the young men and women of Boyle Heights. A son of Boyle Heights himself, will.i.am reflected on the challenges kids from underserved communities like Boyle Heights face, not just in reaching their dreams, but also in having the courage to have those dreams in the first place.

“You guys did this! It’s proof that with the right environment, the right teachers, the right motivations and inspiration, underdog kids from Boyle Heights who want to be electrical engineers, take an interest in STEM and go to school can succeed.”

Addressing one of the students who will be attending Georgetown University in the fall, will.i.am joked, “I go to DC a lot. I’ll be checking up on you.”

College Track co-founder Laurene Powell-Jobs beamed with pride as she watched the students receive their i.am College Track graduation certificates and college t-shirts – a Launch to College tradition. Powell-Jobs and Carlos Watson founded College Track nearly two decades ago, after discovering that many students who want to be the first in their families to attend college received little or no guidance about how to get there.

One of those students, Ruben Estrada—who was admitted to CSU Los Angeles—took to the stage to share the emotional journey that brought him to this momentous occasion, while reminding his peers that this is just the start of something bigger.

“For the last four years, all 45 of us have been running together, side by side, in a marathon towards college graduation. Today, we’ve reached mile 13—the halfway point of our 10-year College Track journey…and it hasn’t been easy. The next four to six years in college will be the hardest part of our run, but also the most rewarding. This is what we’ve been training for. But, unlike a real marathon, we’re not in this race alone. We have our College Track coaches to guide us, our families to cheer us on, and we have each other to make sure we all make it across the finish line. It’s time to keep running.”

Closing out the event, College Track CEO Elissa Salas thanked the class of 2016 for their hard work and personal resilience. “You are part of a movement,” she remarked, “you are taking a step that over 1,000 College Track students have taken before you and you will join nearly 800 college students currently working towards earning their degree. Thank you for allowing College Track to walk with you and your families in this journey.”

 Since it’s founding in 1997, College Track has empowered more than 2,400 students with centers serving eight different communities across the United States. This summer, College Track will open its ninth program site in Denver, Colorado with a cohort of 75 students from Abraham Lincoln High School.