GALESBURG, Illinois - Chris Carpenter likes to talk about history, but he would rather be making it.
"Matter of fact, my mother and sisters, they didn't finish high school," he recalled on Tuesday, May 9.
The Lombard Middle School teacher knows about beating the odds. As an '08 Gale Scholar, he's the first generation in his family to graduate from college.
Now, he's using his experience to inspire the next generation. Seven of 10 incoming Gale Scholars were his students at Lombard.
"I see so much of myself in a lot of the kids," he said.
The program begins with Eighth Graders and ends with them receiving college degrees, tuition-free.
"I was amazed," said Armando Jimenez, 14, who will be joining the program. "I wanted to get this. I worked hard to get this."
There were many impressive moments during the induction for the Class of '21.
The program may be one of Galesburg's best-kept secrets. Carl Sandburg College, Knox College and District 205 teamed up in 1996 to provide opportunities and strengthen the community.
While not everybody makes it, dozens have graduated and advanced.
"It means so much to me," said Alexa Custer, 14. "My mother and father both didn't get to go to college. Since I'm the first one to be able to go, I feel like it's such an opportunity for me to be able to reach those limits."
Students who meet academic, service and income requirements can study two years each at Sandburg or Knox, or they can attend all four years at Knox College.
For a city looking to grow its population, it's one way to keep youngsters in the area for higher education.
"I think there's a misconception that you have to leave the community that you come from in order to get the education that you're looking for," said Autumn Scott, Carl Sandburg College.
Armando wants to become a lawyer. Alexa is aiming to become a school psychologist.
"I want to be able to help kids with the troubles they face in their lives," she said.
This official welcome is just the start of an eight-year process. These students will have a support group and mentors like Chris Carpenter to help overcome those bumps in the road.
"This is an opportunity that kind of sets you apart from the rest," he concluded.
Carpenter, of course, is speaking from history.