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NCAN Alumni Spotlight: Joseph 'Joe' Palombo, Scholarship America Alum

Friday, August 14, 2020  
Posted by: Carm Saimbre, External Relations Associate
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The college access and success field is old enough that classes of students we’ve supported have graduated and are now creating the change we want to see in the world. As NCAN marks 25 years of progress in the effort to close equity gaps in higher education, our Alumni Spotlight series will feature the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years.

At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.


Joseph "Joe" Palombo is an alumnus of the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, managed by Scholarship America. Joe believes in the power of a scholarship to change a life – a power that he and his siblings experienced firsthand after facing unimaginable tragedy.

Joe lost his father, a New York City firefighter, on 9/11. The Families of Freedom Scholarship fund was established days after 9/11 to help provide college funds for the children whose parents died or were permanently disabled. As one of 10 siblings, Joe and his family could worry a little less about the future – all the Palombo siblings were able to attend college with the Fund’s support.

Sadly, Joe lost his mother to colon cancer. Losing both parents made Joe realize life is precious, and with that precious time, he should help others reach their dreams – just as Families of Freedom helped him. He currently serves on the board of trustees for Scholarship America and volunteers with Tuesday’s Children, where he mentors participants in the program and served as co-chair of the Junior Board.

Read more about Joe’s story below.

Note: the responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.

Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.  

In all honesty, I did not have a mentor or counselor that helped me during my journey to earn my bachelor’s or master’s degree. Instead, I had strong role models that I looked up to for inspiration. For example, my uncle is a very successful businessman who I believe is a great family man as well and I greatly respect, but I never reached out to him to be my mentor.

More than anything, I observed the successful people around me and tried to understand what differentiates them from everyone else. What I noticed is the importance to believe in oneself and sticking to core values as opposed to conforming. I don’t believe this applies to all situations. But as a child who spent the first 18 years of my life feeling like a charity case, it was empowering to believe that what holds me back are the limits that people place on me, and more than that, it is the limits I place on myself. I limited possibilities for myself my entire life due to the fear of failure.

Looking back, I never worked hard enough, not in hockey, not in school, and not in chores. I remember in college my adviser in my sophomore year strongly suggesting I not take 18 credits, and that all the classes I had scheduled are very difficult, and I was working an internship 20 hours a week at the time. I refused to listen to him and was convinced I could handle the load. I loved the challenge, embraced it, and did pretty well in all of those classes. The adviser did not make any suggestions after that, as he realized I had a goal and was committed to my success.

As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?

I would place my hurdles in three categories: 1) personal, 2) academic, and 3) social.

  1. My personal hurdles were commuting 1.5-2 hours each way to college and back home, trying to stay present in my household, and helping my mother as much as possible while she battled through stage four cancer.
  2. My academic struggle was mainly determining how much time I needed to dedicate to my classes in order to be successful. I needed to balance life, education, and determine a workable schedule to ensure I could be a successful student, and a good brother and son, which really weighed on me.
  3. My social hurdle was the need to break out of the social cage that I placed myself in at a young age. My father was a firefighter and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. My father passed away when I was 12, and I grew up with very little self-confidence and never really thought that I was “smart.” I never thought I would be “successful” and from an early age, I was always intimidated by the other students in class.

Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?

I believe that by getting my master’s degree, I achieved something that I never thought I was capable of doing. By obtaining my degree, I proved to myself that many limits I have in my life are created in my mind, and that having the mental resilience and persistence to overcome these limits is also dependent on me battling those negative thoughts. Being able to discover this in college has allowed me to take this optimistic mindset into my career and help me push through many obstacles in the workplace.

What inspires you to work in your field?

What inspires me to work hard is knowing that if I choose to apply myself every day, maintain a certain level of mental stamina, and choose to work harder than everyone around me, I will surpass boundaries that I never thought were possible. I also genuinely enjoy solving puzzles and working with numbers, which makes accounting/finance the perfect area for me. I also love the theory behind management and operations and bridging the gaps between the theory and reality.

In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?

The difficulties that current college students are experiencing are unique. Looking for a job out of college was one of the most stressful times of my life, and I couldn’t imagine having to do that during a quarantine lockdown with high unemployment rates.

One thing I tell my brothers who are still in college is that it is their choice to embrace the new environment and make the best out of it or to let this new environment slow them down. In 10 years, everyone will remember this year as the year of COVID-19, but I truly believe that the college students who are able to best adapt to the new environment will benefit greatly.

Being able to adapt to a new environment and learning from the process is a key to success.. No matter how difficult it seems right now, the ability to adapt and excel will really pay off in the long run.


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