Racy Martinez wanted to study law. But she had one problem: she didn’t really speak English.

“I came here a year ago and had already finished high school in my country,” says the 18-year-old, who had moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic to be with her grandmother. “My next step was to go to college, but I needed English classes.”

Martinez was one of 54 Bowdoin-Geneva residents who celebrated completing a rigorous certification program and getting into higher education at  College Bound Dorchester’s third annual Matriculation Celebration last Tuesday. The program works with young adults to help them enter — and complete — college despite severe setbacks, including homelessness, gang violence and incarceration.

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“These are the young people who don’t make it through any other program,” says CBD CEO Mark Culliton. “And since so few got a chance to go to a traditional graduation, this is an awesome, emotional evening for them and their families.”

CBD targets those young people on the fringes of society. Most of them enter the program with only a 7th or 8th grade math and reading level. Meanwhile, more than 30 percent of its participants have been arrested for a violent crime, owned a weapon or been involved in a gang. But the reason it works, says Culliton, is because its staff not only believes in the students, but often share similar backgrounds.

“We hire folks who have been through that lifestyle — who had an unorthodox path to success that involved jail time or belonging to a gang,” he says. “So they are able to get the trust of the students, and the young people can see in our staff members their future selves.”

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CBD also stays involved with the students until they complete their first degree, offering them mentoring, academic support and even help finding scholarships and aid.

Martinez found out about the program through one of her grandmother's hair-salon clients. Now, she's starting classes at Bunker Hill Community College — and her English is flawless. “I’m an immigrant, you know, and it can be very tricky when you have to change your entire life when you’re already 18 or 17 years old," she says. "But I did, and now I’m going to college too! My family is so proud.”

“I think part of what we’re trying to do is shift the mindset: When people see our students on the street they walk away from them; they’re scared,” says Culliton. “We have to have more people walk toward them. By unlocking these young people’s potential we can end the cycle of generational poverty that these neighborhoods are stuck in.”