Damian Gonzalez remembers well his first day on campus at Florida Gulf Coast University. He would be 15 years old for another month yet, and he was sure everyone in his classes knew how young he was.

As an Immokalee High School junior involved in The Immokalee Foundation programs, Gonzalez had been accepted into FGCU’s Accelerated Collegiate Experience program. That means he experiences two academic worlds: He is now a senior at Immokalee High who spends all his classroom time in college, visiting his high school only for meetings of the Robotics and Key clubs.

At FGCU, Gonzalez sees Benjamin Lucio, another Immokalee Foundation student enrolled in the ACE program, in Introduction to Forensics. They signed up for the class together. Lucio certainly can relate to being a young man on campus.

“You’re 16 and walking around with a bunch of adults,” said Lucio, a chemistry major who plans on attending pharmacy school. “But once you know the ropes, it’s fine.”

Lucio learned about the ACE program when he was a sophomore in high school. “I knew I needed to challenge myself a little,” he said.

He definitely rose to the challenge, even making the dean’s list this year, said Alice Brunner, director of FGCU’s ACE program. “I have enjoyed working with both of them– they’re awesome, good students,” she said. “The students we get from The Immokalee Foundation are highly motivated. They overcome a lot of challenges.”


Because of their start in ACE, Gonzalez and Lucio –along with 127 other high school juniors and seniors in the program – will automatically be accepted at FGCU and will enjoy priority registration. In addition, if they finish high school with a 3.0 GPA in their college courses, they’ll be eligible for a scholarship of $3,000 to $5,000, renewable each year they are full-time students.

Perhaps best yet, Gonzalez and Lucio each will have 50 credits toward a college degree when they graduate from high school – and those are 50 credits they earned tuition-free.

“I wanted to get a head start, to get all the prerequisites out of the way,” said Gonzalez, who wants to become a software engineer. He learned about the program from his brother, Marcos Gonzalez, who was the first in his family to graduate from college and is now an accountant in Tampa. “He set really high standards for me,” he said. “And now I think my job is to set the bar even higher for my little sister.” College is still a way off for her, though – Amy Gonzalez is only 8 years old.

The Immokalee Foundation provides a range of education programs that focus on building pathways to success through college and postsecondary preparation and support, mentoring and tutoring, opportunities for broadening experiences, and life skills development leading to economic independence.

To learn more about The Immokalee Foundation, including volunteering, becoming a mentor, making a donation or any other information, call 239.430.9122 or visit

Steven Kissinger, executive director of The Immokalee Foundation, can be reached at

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