In Fernandel’s summer speech to over one hundred students at Freedom House, the room had an electrifying energy. Students admired him for being transparent and for giving them direction and a concrete plan, called a “Meaningful Action Plan”, to navigate the challenges ahead of them.
With a personal purpose statement that reads, “I’m off to rescue students from an average life”, Fernandel – a two-time tenth grade repeat, a high school dropout and homeless teen for over two years in the streets of Boston, and now a Harvard research community member and student – is quite the inspiration and the energy that we needed this summer. Students and parents listened intently and connected to his moving story about his time as a homeless teen and not giving up on himself despite his circumstances: “Those were some of the best years of my life because I would go to the library all day and read, and when it closed, I went to Barnes and Noble until it too closed. Learning was empowering, and the value of learning became clear. It wasn’t just about a job placement or a career advancement tool; it was about self-improvement.”
Fernandel understands firsthand the difficulties faced by low-income students and students who struggle academically with access to few resources. Five years ago, as a community college student prior to attending Harvard University Extension School, he co-founded The National Center for Student Success, with a mission to find the root causes of disengagement in the classroom, poor grades and the dropout epidemic, and to impact change, one student at a time.
Last school year, The National Center for Student Success helped students in Roxbury to secure over $300,000 in scholarship funds, and this summer, Fernandel and his team donated nearly $41,000 in materials and services to programs for low-income students. This includes a progressive program this spring and summer with Freedom House Academy, aimed at helping at-risk students to graduate high school and enter college with a strong support system, which Fernandel emphasizes is essential to avoid the pitfalls common to low-income students. “I take action with a sense of urgency and in unity of purpose. I am most grateful for and supportive of the great feats that my fellow Agents of Change are achieving despite low budgets and high needs.”
To date, Fernandel has donated over 90% of his salary to such programs that provide students from low-income Boston communities like Roxbury, Dorchester and Hyde Park with an opportunity to become first-generation college students – with the hopes of closing the achievement gap and breaking the cycles of generational poverty often found in such areas.
Fernandel embodies the philanthropic culture of The National Center for Student Success in his daily life. To minimize personal spending and to maximize giving to programs, Fernandel has made the conscious decision not to own a cell phone. Three years ago, he deferred his dream of owning a car and still commutes on a used bicycle today. He also cuts his own hair to reduce expenses and allocate more funding to student programs. A short few years ago when Fernandel proposed to his fiancée, he did so with rings made of cotton thread in their effort to maximize impact to students through financial support.
As he concluded his speaking engagement, Fernandel asked the students to high five each other, not in the traditional way but by saying five positive things about themselves beginning with “I am”. He strongly believes that this simple practice can help reaffirm students’ self-esteem, especially when they encounter obstacles on their personal journey. “I see the boundless potential in each and every student here, but I know the challenges that lie ahead of them. I want to do more to ensure that they become successful, and I hope to find more people who will join me in this cause.”