by Joseph Palombo
I was 12 years old when I lost my dad in the September 11 attacks. He was a firefighter who died running into the Twin Towers to save others. I lost my hero that day.
I knew I would never again have that moment when my dad would look at me and say “I’m so proud.” After losing him, I felt insecure about my capabilities. I struggled through school. I had no idea what I was going to do in life. I didn’t think I could go to college, especially with nine siblings who all had their own dreams too. I was going to pick up a trade and I was just going to do it.
During my senior year, my mom told me there’s a scholarship fund that would pay for me to attend college. The Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund was established within days of 9/11 to help provide for college for the thousands of kids who lost a parent, or whose parents were permanently disabled as a result of the attack and rescue efforts.
This meant the world to me.
I felt I had an obligation to do well for the people who invested their time and money for my education. I realized that those people were betting on me to succeed, and I had the opportunity to get a college degree without having any debt. Those people believed in me more than I believed in myself. This empowered me, and I went into college and I crushed it. I got grades I never thought I was capable of getting.
My years in college changed my life in a lot of ways. When I was a sophomore, my mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and given four months to live. Doctors didn’t think she’d be able to make it to my college graduation, but she fought every day and lived for four more years. Seeing her fight through the pain and watching the struggles she went through was incredibly motivating.
I got both my bachelor’s degree in business administration and my master’s degree with a focus on accounting from Pace University. My mother was there. I remember to this day the moment we sat in a restaurant after my graduation and I saw the joy and pride on her face. To have that moment with my mother meant the world to me.
She died a couple of months later.
Today, six of us brothers and sisters have completed college with help from the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. Two are currently in college and two are on their way.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the scholarship I received. In 17 years, The Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund has provided over $151 million to 3,500 students. There are more students who need help. Thank you for what you did for me … and for what you will do to help now.
One thing I learned on September 11, and with the death of my mother, is that life is very short. Another thing I’ve learned is that the best part of life, the most fulfilling part about life, is giving. That’s why I’m so excited to be a trustee now with Scholarship America and to have the opportunity to give back. You can never give enough -- give time, give money, give anything you can.
Joe Palombo joined the Scholarship America Board of Trustees in 2017 and serves as secretary. Additionally, Joe is one of three co-chairs of the Junior Board of Tuesday’s Children, a charity founded in the aftermath of September 11th to help families impacted by the terrorist attacks. He works as an Integration and Project Associate at Verisk Analytics in New Jersey.
This post was updated on November 26, 2018.