Nonprofit college access program continues to support Bronx students amid pandemic

Eddie Santos of Melrose, who will be the first in his family to go to college, talks about his work with BTNY.
Courtesy of Eddie Santos

In a few months, Eddie Santos will be the first in his family to attend college, and the youngster credits his success to nonprofit Breakthrough New York (BTNY).

BTNY is a 10-year nonprofit college access program for students from impoverished communities. Its services include a summer academic and enrichment program, after-school tutoring, test prep and high school and college admissions guidance. About 30 percent of the organization’s 500 students are from the Bronx and the support they provide has continued amid the pandemic.

Melrose resident Santos, 18, just completed his senior year at Tabor Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, and is now home before he begins at Ithaca College in the fall. He has received education support services for the last seven years from BTNY and remote support while he has been away at boarding school and during the pandemic.

“I didn’t really want to do it [BTNY] at first,” Santos said. “Ever since then, it has been a whole different lifestyle.”

Growing up in the south Bronx, Santos didn’t envision a path to higher education. While he was never involved in drugs or criminal activity, he said that it was just an environment where few people opted to go to college.

His parents Felisa and Eddie are from Mexico and were not aware of the job world for their son, he explained. Furthermore, they didn’t have much money, so secondary education was tough to think about.

“I thought I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do anything,” he said. “I didn’t really have many aspirations for myself.”

But, everything changed in sixth grade when his English teacher recommended him for BTNY. Santos recalls that his whole mindset changed after he was introduced to the program.

They showed him there is a life outside of the south Bronx. He told the Bronx Times he always thought private schools and boarding schools were for rich kids.

Carina Cruz of BTNY, who has worked with Eddie. Courtesy of Carina Cruz

His life revolved around the city but with guidance from BTNY, he made the leap to go to Tabor. While it was a big culture shock, it was a worthwhile experience.

Heading into his sophomore year in high school he met Carina Cruz, of BTNY, who has worked with Santos the past few years. Cruz, 24, helped Santos selected Ithaca for college, where he plans to study biology.

Santos explained that his parents always have supported him emotionally, but he owes a great deal of gratitude to BTNY for helping him get this far. The program taught him to take the initiative in life and be proactive.

“I feel like they really care,” he remarked. “I looked up to them a lot. I feel like Breakthrough definitely pushed me in the right direction.”

His 14-year-old sister Anna is also working with BTNY.

Cruz has only been working for BTNY for a few years but she is an alumnus of the program.

When she first met Santos, she recalled that he he came across as a “sweet kid.” He told her how it was difficult at first being a kid from the south Bronx in a boarding school.

As they got to know each other, she realized he had a desire to go to college and she assisted him with the application process. However, Santos was under the misconception that he needed a 4.0 grade point average to get into a good school. She quickly alleviated his fears and told him not to worry.

As his parents are not native English speakers, Cruz helped him with the financial aid papers and selecting Ithaca. She became close with his family and was even invited to his sister’s Quinceañera.

“I empowered Eddie to make sure he knew enough information,” she said. “Meeting students like Eddie made me want to stay in BTNY. They triggered my passion for education.”

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