But not everyone becomes a victim of a broken system.
When Franklin Solano Jr. arrived on campus at the University of Rhode Island, he was searching for a life beyond the streets of Central Falls. He said that of the 200 or so students in his class, only about 20 he knew of were going to college.
“I didn’t want to continue the trend,” he said. “My sophomore year (of high school), I’d see people who graduated three or four years ago not doing anything with their lives, just stagnant. I didn’t want that for me.”
So he set about changing the course of his future.
A former running back, Solano craved discipline and structure and planned to enter the Army after high school. His father, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, stressed the value of education and convinced Franklin to get his college degree first.
Short in stature, but strongly built, Solano knew he still wanted the physical challenges he faced on the gridiron, and considered trying to join the URI football team.
But he saw a similar opportunity for physical challenges in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps at URI and the chance for personal growth in other areas.
“I wanted to play football here, but that’s not going to get you anywhere,” Solano said. “The Army teaches you leadership and challenges you in other ways, too.”
One of the challenges it helped him face was academics. Coming from a high school with an abysmal graduation rate, Solano wasn’t as prepared as many students entering the world of higher education.
“I didn’t learn as much there as kids at other schools do,” Solano said. “I really had to put my nose in the books, it didn’t just come naturally to me. I could have done enough to be OK, to not fail out, but I try to excel at everything I do, not do just enough.”
And excel he did.
Solano had never enjoyed academics, but with much of his performance ratings depending on his grades, he knew he had to focus on them.
“When I got out of high school, I hated studying,” he said. “But knowledge is power. I still wasn’t really into it freshman year, but ROTC got me into it. Everything is a competition and 40 percent of it is grades, so I knew I had to pick it up in the classroom. ROTC got me on track.”
As a result, Solano will graduate with honors May 20 with a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. He will be the first of his family to earn a college degree. He sports a grade-point average of 3.5 and has been an intern in Sen. Jack Reed’s office. He spent his senior year as battalion commander of the ROTC classes at URI, Roger Williams University and Salve Regina University.
Upon graduation, he will spend time training in Kentucky, Arizona and Georgia to become an Army intelligence officer before reporting to Fort Bragg, N.C., to join the 82nd Airborne Division, in which Reed once served.
He said he won’t rule out following Reed into politics some day and he plans to get his master’s degree and possibly pursue a law degree, but for now, the Army remains his focus.
Solano has been given top-secret clearance and he will eventually be tasked with gathering strategic, operational and tactical intelligence on the ground for other troops. He said many of his responsibilities are still a mystery to him, but he will learn more about it when he reports to Basic Officer Learning Course on Aug. 21.
Solano knows his degree and his four-year tour in the Army will give him a chance to see the world far beyond the borders of Central Falls. It also is giving him a chance to set an example for his younger siblings.
The third of seven children, Solano sees his 13-year-old brother, Ezequiel, facing many of the same challenges he did. And he knows his brother can have the same success if he puts his mind to it.
“I tell him not to worry about fitting in. I tell him, ‘You can socialize and still do well in school,” Solano said. “I try to get him to understand that math and science and writing are important. I tell him I’ll give him $20 for every A he gets.”
For now, Solano is trying to spend as much time with his family as he can before he reports to basic training June 5. His time as Battalion Commander was rewarding he said, but the demands it placed on his time limited how often he has been able to spend time with his loved ones.
The success he’s had at URI has made the sacrifice worth it, he said, but by no means is he finished.
“I’ve come a long way, but I’ve got way more to accomplish,” Solano said. “I’ve got my foot in the door, but I’ve got a lot left to do.”
URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.