KEW GARDENS HILLS, Queens — It could have been an ordinary event, but a variety of factors resulted in thousands of teens packing the Queens College gymnasium here for an occasion that was anything but conventional.
"Wow. That's the first word I said," high school senior Nakai Santiago told PIX11 News. "I didn't think it was going to be this big."
He was one of more than 3,000 high school students who attended the largest college fair of its kind, possibly ever.
"Young men of color are at the bottom of all indicators of success," said David Banks, founder of the Eagle Academy schools, and organizer of the college fair targeted specifically at young men of color.
"When you have a chance to visit and talk to the people from the different colleges," said Banks, "that's what makes it real."
Banks established the Eagle Academy schools network 15 years ago to specifically serve young men from neighborhoods in New York City and Newark, New Jersey with the highest prison incarceration rates. It was the subject of a documentary released this year.
"Black and brown boys is the demographic that is least represented at college campuses all around the nation," Banks told PIX11 News in an interview at the college fair, which took place at the FitzGerald Gymnasium at Queens College.
The young men in attendance statistically face long odds in American society. However, at Eagle Academies, 86 percent of black students graduate, and all of the students in the most recent graduating class were accepted to college, in spite of some lower than city-average test scores and performance in some academic areas.
While the school group has held college fairs before, it decided this time to open it up to students outside of the Eagle Academy system. The turnout was overwhelming, in a positive way.
"Most young men," said Banks, "they've never visited a college campus. They've never met a representative of a college."
Santiago, a senior who lives in Harlem, has visited some colleges in the past, but he marveled at what he saw on display in the FitzGerald Gymnasium here.
"Colleges that carry some of the best programs I've seen," Santiago said. "I didn't even know zoology was a major until today."
A fellow Eagle Academy senior, Jusanne Henry, said that it was simply a chance to find resources that are all the more scarce to young men of color, and it was all in the same place.
"Every opportunity you have to look at colleges," Henry said, "I think you should seize it. because you never know where you could end up."
His point is borne out in statistics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every 65 cents a high school graduate earns, a college graduate earns $1.
Economic challenges exist for college graduates of color that their white counterparts do not face, but the earning difference, along with a greater professional and social network, show how something as simple as a college fair for students of color can affect the rest of their lives.