Helping others find their futures as immigrant Americans

Yavuz Goncu and Tracie Tracy with Picco (left) and Turk, who died last year.


Neighbors is an occasional series: profiles of people who live in Bolton Hill, showing the talent and diversity of those who live among us. Nominations are welcome:

Yavuz Goncu grew up in a prosperous and educated family, attended an American school in his native Turkey, where classes were taught in English, and was among a relatively elite group of Turkish students able to study abroad. “It’s not something every Turkish kid gets to do,” he acknowledged.

Nevertheless, moving to the United States and attending college here was a formidable adjustment – coming to grips with America’s customs and culture as a college student. So it was natural, perhaps, that he would join with a group of teachers eight years ago to found the Chesapeake Language Project (CLP) to help minimize the barriers that young immigrant students face in the region. He is CLP’s board president.

“It’s like a small family of students, teachers and mentors,” he said. “We try to surround each student with support that meets his or her individual needs. In some instances that means intensive English-language training for students who arrive with little or no knowledge of English. For others it can mostly involve help with class work and in navigating college admissions tests, paperwork and other barriers and pointing them toward high school graduation and college entry.”

In their first cohort of seven students from Baltimore city and the county, six graduated and five received college scholarships, he said. One received support worth $79,000 a year as a “full-ride scholarship” student at George Washington University in D.C. In all, the students were offered admissions to 40 colleges and universities.

A second cohort is made up of 12 high school juniors, mostly from Central and South America, with one from Afghanistan. Students are encouraged by teachers to apply when they complete middle school.

“Mentors get to know the children and their families, help them figure out their options and take them to visit college campuses to help them sort out the opportunities available to them,” Yavuz said. They track down available public and private scholarship and loan programs, negotiate grants and work-study programs and help students make choices. CLP offers small scholarships and assists in buying computers and books. It welcomes tax-deductible donations and new volunteers.

Mentors are asked to connect with students over several years, staying in regular contact and providing at least three hours each month of face-to-face support. Most do more, developing close relationships and becoming role models and friends.

Yavuz, 42 now, left Istanbul in 1996, joining an older brother who came two years earlier to attend Lehigh University and has more recently returned to their home country. Yavuz attended Rhode Island School of Design and then majored in architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

He started his architecture career in Baltimore at Grant Architects in 2002, then joined Ayers Saint Gross Architects and Planners in 2004. In 2010 he became a partner in his own design technology firm, leaving in the summer of 2021 to join SK+I Architecture in Bethesda as a senior designer for multi-family and mixed-use buildings. His wife, Baltimore-native Tracie Tracey, is a program manager at Fearless Tech, a local company providing software development under government contracts.

Yavuz is president of the Bolton Square homeowner’s association and lives in a Mason Street townhouse with his wife and their brown Italian greyhound rescue, Picco.

Bill Hamilton