Peer Leader Stories
As a high school student, Lewis Nunez was a Youth Leader at Bushwick School for Social Justice. He is currently completing a B. A. in physiological psychology and sociology at Hunter College, as well as working as a College Assistant at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He will be graduating in May of 2023 and will be attending a summer research experience at Brown University, and in the cycle of fall, Lewis will be applying for Ph.D. programs.
CARA staff member Pamela Vasquez – who was a College Coach at the Bushwick Campus when he was a Youth Leader – interviewed him about his experiences with college access and persistence over the past five years.
Can you tell us about what your personal experience was with post-secondary planning and at college?
I didn’t have the privilege of my parents being able to afford me living outside of home. If I needed to afford books, if I needed clothes, if I needed to eat outside, I still needed to have a job. Eventually I got a work study position at my school (BMCC), which made it easier for me to work. They arranged it around my schedule, but there was still a lot of work to do, in terms of school work. When I transfered to Hunter, I already had a position at BMCC as a College Assistant, not as a work study anymore, and that required for me to do a lot more work because I was promoted to being a team meet, and that required a lot of responsibilities while I was still doing a full time class schedule. The most difficult challenge for me has been trying to find the time for me to do work and to do school. Then the pandemic affected me a bit because I started to work from home, and I didn’t know how to separate space and time for me to do school work and homework, if I did everything on the same desk. Eventually post pandemic, I started to find this habit of okay, if I’m gonna work for BMCC from my desktop to find somewhere else to do my homework. I would go to Starbucks, come to campus, etc.
What do you think about postsecondary pathways becoming more progressive in terms of including non-college options?
I want to see that. I feel like there’s a lot that goes on in our homes, and there is that generational push of having to pursue being a doctor and a lot of people have that fixed mindset of “if I don’t go into the medicine field, I can’t do anything else.” And a big part of being a Youth Leader was pushing students, especially pushing the idea that there’s more for you to do than what you’re expected to do by your parents, and that you can still do a lot of things and make a broad impact. Because I was a Youth Leader is why I did a Sociology minor.
Why do you think more people should know about and support CARA?
Currently, I have little cousins who are in the process of applying to colleges, and sometimes it’s tough as first-generation students, especially since we’re the first ones to go to college. Being part of CARA helped me understand how this system worked and get comfortable with it, as I was also providing help to other people. I also prepared myself to know what it felt like being a college student and having so many responsibilities through me and CARA. And I realized I wanted to go into the mental health field. Something else is, I was also able to learn how to network with people. I remember through CARA talking to you [Pamela], to Stephanie, to Dana, and to everybody else in the S-Area (Student Success Center).Building those skills something I can still rely on. I can still email anybody. I can still text anybody and still get the guidance, which I found very important. And again, just being able to use the skills that I learned like applying to colleges, and knowing how to fill out financial aid so that I can provide that assistance to my community, especially my family, and those little cousins who are apparently in the process of applying to college.
Tell me about something you did as a Youth Leader that you think has helped an individual student in their college process.
One of the main things that I did was helping people with their financial aid… I’ve done multiple financial aid applications in addition to my own, and I’ve helped my own peers complete their financial aid on time. I’m always on track with the deadlines, because it’s usually the same, and I’m always triggered to remember October 1st. So, I just filled out my FAFSA and TAP, and was comfortable with completing the applications, because again, I did so many. I think it was 86 students that we had in the senior class back in BSSJ [The Brooklyn School for Social Justice] and it was me and Michelly working with the class. I had to get comfortable with filling out the applications as I was getting trained and helping people too.
Why do you think it is important for SSCs to continue getting funds?
I remember that it felt like I was doing something important, not just for myself to get the experience of having a job as a senior and getting to talk to so many people, getting to travel, go to campus stores with Stephanie. I felt like I was making an impact in my community at a larger scale, because I was pushing my people to get a higher education, even if sometimes you don’t need to go to college, which is something that we emphasize a lot in the S-Area. We just push people to do something else once they graduate, and unfortunately a lot of the people in my senior class didn’t feel like they could do something else after high school. A lot of the conversations they had is like” after I graduate, like I don’t know what else to do with my life”, and it was through conversations that they found something else to do. Whether that was a post- graduation program, whether it was a job, I think it is important to push the people in our communities, and make sure that they have the resources to see more than what they have.
CARA staff received a delightful email invitation back in September from our Right to College program associate, Krystal Diaz. “Let’s Go to Grad School with Krystal” read the subject heading; attached were two of the readings that had been assigned in the first week of her Masters in Youth Studies program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.
We are thrilled that Krystal is pursuing further studies, and about the ways she is bringing her learning back to us at CARA. We sat down with her to hear a little bit more about her decision to head back to school, her choice of program, and what she is learning.
What made you decide to go to graduate school, and how did you choose this program?
I didn’t think I was going to go back so soon. I finished undergrad in January of 2021. But I was at a point being here at CARA where I felt like I could bring more and be providing more not just for the youth leaders but for everybody by going back to school. My beautiful and lovely director shared the flier for the Youth Studies program, and it was the perfect program that had everything I was interested in. That felt like it was a sign from the universe.
What have you enjoyed about the program and what’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or learned about this semester?
Being in the program has put me in a better position to cater to our young people. I say this as a 25 year old who is exiting the youth cycle; it’s helped me to reflect on my own adolescence and hear other people do that. I’m now in a position to have a bigger impact on them and encourage them to have an impact on the world.
One of my favorite readings was from the Atlantic from over 100 years ago. It talked about how youth is backed by curiosity and non-conformity – you exit youth when you settle down and conform. It emphasizes that it’s okay to be curious, rebellious, discover, that’s what being youthful is. They’re still learning and discovering – they don’t mind if they get hurt in the process. Sometimes it’s healthy to question authority. I sometimes think I’m trying to make little anarchists. The youth have been silenced for a long time, about who they are, what they want to learn, what they want for their own lives.
I was too scared to do anything when I was a youth – to discover, go out of my comfort zone. I wanted to be that good kid who didn’t step out of the lines. Now at 25 I find myself doing those things. I’m going to be on the path but also wiggle a little bit.
How would you say being in school has changed your work at CARA so far?
It hasn’t changed, but has enhanced it. Mental health is my niche at the organization. Now I’m coming from an angle of understanding historically the neglect of youth voice and mental health. That awareness pushes me to add more into training, and encouraged me to talk more to peer leaders about youth culture and how they see their standing in their schools and communities, and what they want to see change.
“When I hear the phrase “Youth Culture” I feel like it’s the manner in which teens spend their life. Their hobbies, their fashion sense, the terminology they use, their mentalities, and also the things they enjoy doing like music, dance, athletics, intimate/platonic relationships. It is the idea that adolescence is a different subculture with different values, beliefs and norms that are different from past youth or older generations.”
Right to College Program Associate Krystal Diaz sat down with Adrianne Bien-Aime, a 17 year old high school senior at Bushwick Educational Campus and current youth leader for the Right to College program, to hear Adrianne’s thoughts on youth culture today, what it encapsulates, and what it can mean for this generation and generations to follow. Gaining insight from being in both predominantly white and diverse school settings, she elaborated on the real struggles of young people today, the primary struggle being youth mental health. Adrianne emphasized the importance of youth-facing adults actually listening to and hearing what young people are saying to them about their lives, and of leading with an empathetic lens in order to help discover solutions.
What kinds of issues are prominent in youth today in your opinion?
Mental health is a really big one today, anxiety and depression have become huge and serious mental stressors among a lot of American teenagers. Teen pregnancy, bullying, alcohol and drugs, gangs and all those things are very prominent issues. Media platforms have also changed drastically over the years and that’s where issues are also rooted.
I don’t really put myself into those categories, but I have been around a lot of people who go through these things. I ask ‘Hey are you okay’ or even offer a simple smile, these kids go through a lot of things and you don’t know what that can be, bullying, stress from school, familial struggles, they’re all very prevalent. Going away for college has been a struggle for students, students who have to support their families and work jobs while attending school. Finding a solution is tough – to do so not by invalidating their home situations, but finding solutions that they can achieve from within it.
How do you think youth-facing institutions (Schools, after-school programs, community centers, etc) cater to youth? What areas are they lacking in?
They really do try to provide programs for abuse, domestic violence, and what-not for the youth to show that they can be there for them and provide resources if they need someone to talk to. If they have a mental health issue they provide therapists, etc. I feel like the only area they’re lacking in sometimes is providing empathy along with the services being provided. Teachers don’t really know how to express their emotions towards what they are saying to students, it seems like they’re really listening to you to offer ‘big people’ advice instead of leveling with that student to really understand what they’re going through.
Where do you see youth finding safe spaces?
In school there’s an area for students to talk to social workers. These social workers can be pretty young, in their early 20s, so they’re part of this generation. Because of that it feels like they have more to say to touch students and make them feel motivated to continue speaking since what they’re saying is being understood and the solutions apply to their lives.
Byron Chamorro first arrived at CARA in the fall of 2015 as part of our first cohort of year-round Bridge Coaches. He continued coaching for his high school, the Expeditionary School for Community Leaders, for 3 years, and then moved on to coach at another high school. Since 2019, he has also served as CARA’s graphic designer, doing everything from creating report and curriculum designs, to managing our website, to creating these monthly Eblasts. He also works for other organizations as a freelance designer and will receive a bachelor’s of fine arts in Graphic Design from New York City College of Technology in May of 2023.
How did you become a Bridge Coach?
I was struggling a lot with financial aid and at one point I was just giving up on continuing to enroll in college. So my counselor, she saw the determination that I had and, you know, everything that was going on and that I needed a job also.
I didn’t used to be someone that could talk to a group of people and be comfortable. I knew that the job would require me to lead workshops, and talk to students, explain things, things like that. So I saw it as an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and I said yes.
What do you learn from being a Bridge Coach?
I managed to connect [well] with students given my age, being close in age. But it also presented a lot of challenges with communication, leadership, and self-advocacy. Communicating, getting my thoughts out, was very difficult for me. So explaining things, walking people through a process was not possible at all [before]. Doing this job for six years definitely helped with that.
So learning about those things during trainings and from personal experience, connecting those actually helped me a lot with walking into an office or calling the financial aid office and saying, ‘hey, my financial aid is not going through’, which I wouldn’t have been able to – or have the guts to – stand up for myself and do those things if it wasn’t because of coaching.
How did you end up studying graphic design?
I spoke to my guidance counselors saying I’m interested in art, math and coding and stuff like that. What can I do with this? And they mentioned graphic design, I looked into it and it was something that kind of combined a lot of the things that I was interested in.
What do you picture yourself doing once you finish your degree?
I don’t want to just settle on graphic design. I want to do it in a fun way that at the same time helps others. I’m passionate about that. That is the reason why I did [Bridge] coaching for six years, because I want to give back to the community and schools. So I want to take my design skills and everything that I know about design and focus it on doing things that…are meaningful. I realized that my coaching experience and design are connected: I want to focus on creating content and products that [will] help students achieve or access higher education.
Kendra Suarez supports young people through the college application process and career preparation as the College and Career Readiness Student Support Coordinator at Sunnyside Community Services in Queens. Kendra graduated from Brooklyn College in 2021 with a bachelor’s in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies and is a former CARA College Bridge Coach at Gotham Professional Arts Academy.
Working as a Bridge Coach emphasized that this is a field I want to work in – college work is just one of the ways to help kids navigate through the process of finding their individuality and advocating for themselves. The environment of coaching at Gotham definitely helped me to figure out my path – I had conversations with [my supervisor and the social worker] to figure this out, and other conversations within the Gotham community helped me to recognize my strengths. The interpersonal part is a huge strength of mine, so that helped solidify “oh yeah, I want to do one-on-one work.”
At Gotham, I was working side-by-side with my supervisor on the curriculum; I would do some research on programs, and even led seminar classes. Having that space to do that with him led to all the opportunities I am able to take now because I built so many skills. Especially more towards my last two years of Bridge coaching, we started developing new initiatives. I advocated for a new seminar class when we went virtual [during the pandemic]. I became part of the conversations about what skills our kids weren’t receiving…and have tried to work on how we can build those skills into the system.
Coaching increased my interest in advocacy in youth development – combining my experience plus working with students going through that experience, it was definitely a whole backtrack of…how to be able to let adolescents advocate for themselves and be their authentic self. And I feel like that comes in a lot when you’re transitioning to possibly college, because there’s always this pressure of like, do I wanna go to college? Do I not? My personal mission is to be able to help kids define their individual selves authentically and help them define what that is. I’m not gonna tell you that you have to go to school – here are your options though. I like to let kids know they have a voice and that I’m here to just listen.
In the midst of nearing graduating college, I was looking up gap year programs, and essentially what I liked about the Public Allies [Americorps program] was the cohort aspect of it and the grants for more education, and the non-profit aspect of it because Public Allies specifically pairs you with a non-profit and I know eventually I want to get more into nonprofit work or start my own nonprofit. So that just felt like a nice way to learn more about the industry. When I was placed at Sunnyside in Queens, the programming was restructuring, so I learned a little bit of everything which is how I’ve been able to expand on my knowledge rather than it just being only college and career advising. I’m also learning about grants because it’s such a small program that it’s…easy to know what’s happening, including me. I definitely didn’t expect that when I first started.
I had to hustle in order to get help to go to college. I dream of a world where that support is a given.
Growing up in Jackson Heights, I didn’t need to see the street sign to know I was at 70th Street. I could smell the Bengali, Pakistani, and Indian aromas of paprika and turmeric. I instantly knew when I approached 80th Street when music from Colombia and Ecuador filled my ears. Almost everywhere in my neighborhood, I saw people scurrying to work, or rushing to drop off children at school. However, between 70th and 80th there was a white bubble: a Starbucks, less car noise, and more birdsong. The white people looked like they were gliding, walking on air—but why?
When I began attending Central Park East High School, a predominantly Black and brown school in East Harlem, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Every morning on my commute, I saw wealthy, white parents get off at the 96th Street station, just one stop away from my high school, strolling to drop off their children–unhurried and unbothered. But in East Harlem, groups of mothers held their kids’ hands and ran toward the school building, then rushed to the train station to commute.
Over time, I’ve learned that this hustle is ever-present in communities of color like mine. My single Filipino mother couldn’t afford enrichment opportunities like private music instruction or sports programs. She worked eight hours and overtime as a travel agent for little pay. Each time I asked for something she couldn’t afford, her face fell into a pained expression, filling me with resignation. As a child, I knew I had to hustle, so I actively sought the enrichment opportunities I couldn’t afford elsewhere.
In ninth grade, the school guidance counselor promoted a program called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars, a selective academic program that helps underserved public high school students attend college. As soon as I learned that 100% of SEO Scholars are accepted into colleges, I applied and, after a challenging and competitive process, I was accepted.
However, my excitement upon being accepted was quickly dampened. At a presentation during orientation, tears welled up in my eyes as I looked at the wealth and opportunity gap distribution projected on the big screen: 62% of the wealthiest quarter of students graduate from college, while only 16% of the least wealthy quarter do. Although the whole auditorium instinctively understood that we were at a disadvantage in the world, finally seeing a label on it–“the wealth and opportunity gap”–made us fall silent. I suddenly understood why the white people on 96th Street strolled without worries; it was their wealth that allowed them to live on the other, privileged side of that gap.
Once in the program, I gained access to resources I had never had before: I received additional instruction and tutoring on fundamental, yet deceivingly tricky topics that often go overlooked in school such as Algebra and Grammar; I was able to talk with advisors who shared their experience of what college is like and helped me explore my best fit. I was still hustling–commuting home at night after tutoring and going to school on Saturdays–but now I had support. These resources that my wealthy white counterparts could pay for, resources that I now got from SEO Scholars, helped close the wealth and opportunity gap little by little. However, it also reaffirmed how widespread and unequal this hustle is.
My disappointment evolved into a motivation to help and uplift my community. Through a program run by College Access: Research & Action (CARA), I took seminars on the college application process and started helping my peers apply to college. It was unrealistic for my school’s college counselor to meet with the hundred-or-so seniors and help them fill out every single application, so it was my job as a CARA Youth Leader to assist. In the fall of my senior year, I began helping my peers write their college statements and supplemental essays. Together, we completed the daunting financial aid applications like FAFSA and the CSS Profile. I noticed the financial aid component of college applications was difficult and even awkward for first-generation college students as money isn’t a topic easily spoken about within immigrant families. Despite the difficulties we faced, it was fulfilling to see my peers realize they could make their dreams of going to college a reality with little cost. By working as a CARA Youth Leader, I discovered the power I could have and saw the magnitude of an impact when all students have access to one-on-one college advising and support.
While it has been uplifting to see these successes and empowering to know I can make a difference, the work I’m doing to help my peers shouldn’t be needed. They shouldn’t need to apply for a ticket to social mobility and they shouldn’t have to fight for the opportunity to meet with their college counselor. In New York City, you can be one of 500 students on your advisor’s caseload, leading to a lack of support in the college application process.
All students should have guaranteed access to the types of support I have had to hustle to get. We need to support the dreams of all students by putting more counselors in schools, having more Youth Leader programs like CARA’s, and addressing the unequal funding public city schools receive across the different districts.
Now, as I sit on the subway heading home and I see fellow high schoolers commuting home, I think of other ways to support and uplift students like me. I envision a society where there are no longer systems upholding the wealth and opportunity gap, keeping us from fulfilling our dreams of going to college and of upward social mobility. However, in order to achieve this vision, I need to go to college. I am excited that I will be able to attend Vassar College this fall, where I plan to study Political Science so I can become a policy-maker to help my community thrive. But while I’m away, I hope my city can do more to support my peers who are still rushing to school and work, trying to get help on their path to college.
To mark their first year as Program Associates at CARA, Krystal Diaz and Pamela Vasquez reflected together on insights they would share with their younger peer leader selves; career skills and self-care; and their goals for the future.
What Skills Have Stayed With You From Being A Peer Leader?
Krystal: My ability to talk to people and make whoever I’m talking to in the room comfortable, especially peer leaders. I owe a lot of my success to that – without developing that skill and being put in those uncomfortable positions of counseling my peers and table facilitating and running a little session here and there, slowly building up to full on reaching out to people on my own and everything. I think that’s my biggest takeaway skill that I got from starting off as a Bridge Coach.
Pamela: I never saw myself doing this until I got the Bridge Coach position. What also really helped me was CARA as a whole, opening a lot of doors. [For the other jobs I’ve had], at Pratt, at different schools, was because of CARA as my network.
Krystal: And now working with peer leaders coming off us being peer leaders, it gives us an opportunity to share with our younger selves in the work that we do and kind of make sure that we’re giving them the direction, the opportunities, the truth that maybe we didn’t get.
On Prioritizing Mental Health in Their Work
Pamela: Self-care is something that Krystal and I are big on. It is important to connect with ourself to also better understand who we are, what we want and where we are going and you know self care in general is just taking time to myself and be selfish with my time sometimes. Because, sometimes we’re available to people, it is like you’re not being realistic with yourself and you’re not being conscious with your time, so being conscious and also being real to yourself is important. I tell peer leaders, just make sure that you get into a work environment that actually compliments you, because sometimes we don’t feel good in a work environment, and we are just working, because we need the money. Of course, we will work for money, but at the end of the day, it is so important that we feel good in our work environment, and I personally feel good at CARA, and that is something that I really value.
Krystal: Something that is different from when I was a Youth Leader to now working with Youth Leaders…and Pamela you can agree with me or disagree, I feel like mental health was starting to be touched on, but it was being separated from the actual work we were doing. So now in working with my Youth Leaders, I’m huge on mental health – both me and Pamela are, and I love that about us! We do a lot for the young people just for being that emotionally aware and promoting that emotional awareness. I try my best to fit in social-emotional learnings into sessions, instead of separating them, so it’s like if we’re learning about financial aid on this day, we’re going to put in a session on feeling overwhelmed and how you can feel overwhelmed in this process and what to do when you feel overwhelmed and I just think integrating those things more will create that norm in terms of changing the educational system.
Where Do You See Yourself Going in the Future?
Pamela: I see myself going to grad school to do my masters in social work, and my dream work would be combining what I have learned so far in this career in higher education, along with social work, to connect that and maybe work at a clinic or even connect it to my international justice major and work as a social work for Homeland Security.
Krystal: I try not to create plans, because I guess my biggest plan is just to continue being surprised to continue to see where I thrive. With going to grad school at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, I do want to continue learning – learning in general, but also I love learning about youth development and kind of what I can do in my work positions now and the future that can help In that realm and just bring more of that social emotional learning and bring more of that self advocacy work into what students are learning.
What type of support did you receive in your transition from high school to college?
CARA College Bridge coach support followed me in the summer after graduating. You [Pamela] were checking up on me and other students, that was amazing. The dedication you put into students is not just a job but it’s a connection that stays with you. I appreciate it. You got me through it.You were an inspiration. I was like ‘I wanna do what Pamela is doing, working and helping others, while being in college and getting good grades.’ When I wanted to give up my freshman year in college or when things got hard, I heard your voice in my head saying ‘Keep going.’
For me specifically when I came here, I was new to the country, new to school, new to college, I feel like having a College Bridge Coach to help me through the college process made it so much easier and I could honestly say I would not have known how to apply to college without your help.
Tell us about your college experience.
There was a college fair I attended with lots of colleges being brought to my attention and I saw John Jay and immediately fell in love. Ever since I got to this country, John Jay was my dream school because I wanted to study criminology and in my country they don’t have that available. When I came here I fell in love with it and never felt the need to change my mind. I went in-person for my first year of college and then have been remote since. It’s hard to know you’re graduating and you don’t have those peers to celebrate with from classes you’ve taken on campus. I did get to travel to other countries and places during school which was a benefit of being remote. With everything going on, I almost dropped out this semester from all the pressure, but John Jay College and my advisor were very helpful in keeping me going. I’m happy I got through it.
ACE also really got me through the process of college. Because of their training, I didn’t have a hard time transitioning to online after my freshman year. While it was a little difficult, they teach you how to manage your time, make your schedule, and support traveling and finding internships. Going through college has been easier having ACE. It’s like having another community with my advisor and my ACE peers.
Considering your own post-secondary experiences, what’s one piece of advice you would offer students currently going through the process?
Look for help and accept it! Many of us when we start looking for colleges, we think we’re adults and we’re ready to fend for ourselves and end up failing. It is important for us to look for help prior to making decisions to benefit us.
What are your plans after graduating college?
At first I wanted to go to the FBI Academy. But in the meantime, I am currently applying for an organization that dedicates themselves to do investigations of organized crimes all over Latin America. I want to travel with them and work with them to investigate those crimes all over so I can make connections and gain experience before applying for Quantico.
What was your main motivation for becoming a College Allies peer leader?
Before becoming a peer leader, I still wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do in terms of my major and career. However, taking part in the College Discovery Club at Hostos led me to a growing interest in social work and I started to really like exploring the field and understanding what social work is about. That was around the same time that my advisor told me about the College Allies opportunity, and I realized it sounded similar to social work. So I figured this would be a great opportunity to get experience in the social work field.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this experience/position?
As a College Allies Peer Leader, I know a big part of this is helping the new incoming students. I remember when I first got to Hostos, I had the College Discovery program specifically. To me that program is just beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s a great way for people new to college to get acquainted. You have a very deep support system and it really enriches your experience at the college. Now as a peer leader I get to be a part of that, the enrichment process. And I get to offer some emotional support and advice, or help these students get used to taking advantage of resources that maybe they normally wouldn’t really take a second look at. Helping the college experience be less daunting and scary is probably my favorite part of this job.
How has your experience as a peer leader helped fulfill your interest in pursuing a social work career?
Sometimes I have conversations with students that they kind of go beyond academics; some students have their own personal struggles and things that may get in the way of their school work. Sometimes for them to succeed in school, they have to address these problems that are outside of school. This looks different for everybody: for example, sometimes there are parents or students that are full-time workers and have so many responsibilities that make it very difficult for them to really give their all in school. I really enjoy having these conversations with the students about what they’re personally going through and then telling them how I could really understand where they’re coming from, understand their difficulties and try to find solutions to those problems. Me, myself, I know for a fact that I can’t really do anything to solve the problem directly but I can guide them towards things that may help them solve that issue which is what I learned in social work. It’s really about being the bridge for the student – connecting them to the resources they need, not necessarily being the solution to the problem but helping them find the solution.
First, we know that you were named as a Youth co-Chair on the Mayor’s Transition Team. How did that come about and what was it like?
As CARA’s College Bridge intern, I attended citywide college access meetings with Paula, the previous director – supporting and representing the College Bridge program with her. A few of the meetings that we went to were part of a #DegreesNYC initiative; when my intern job was ending, Paula referred me to a fellowship application for their Youth Council. That’s what eventually led to the Mayor’s Transition Team.
There were four Youth co-chairs, and they asked each of us to offer a 10 minute presentation based on our K-12 experience. We were on a Zoom meeting with maybe 70 other people – different members of the community; there were religious leaders, City Council people, I think one member of the State Assembly, but then there were also teachers, CEOs, and representatives from different college access programs at CUNY and SUNY. Some private colleges were represented there too. I volunteered to present first, knowing I was the person that had the most public speaking experience. That wouldn’t have been possible without my experience at CARA and all of the things that led from that.
And in the little time that we’ve known each other, I ended up supporting one of the other co-chairs – a senior in high school – with her own college access process. I answered her questions after she mentioned to me that she was getting very little support at school.
We know that you were a College Bridge Coach at ACTvF for four years – can you talk about how your role grew during that time?
Because I was a coach for so many years, my responsibilities expanded as each year went by. In the first year it’s always a weird transition between being a student to a near peer leader, so it’s been a process of becoming more and more comfortable. Now I see myself – and I think I am seen by students’ parents – as really a full-fledged member of the community and someone that they can really trust and go to.
Heather [the college counselor] has made me familiar with a lot of different operating systems like SUNY’s Counselor Connect Portal, and have been able to see how documents are being sent or like where things should go on application tracking platforms like Naviance. But my increased responsibilities and experience are something that happened over time, more during my third and fourth years of being a Coach.
While you’re no longer a Bridge Coach, you’re still working at the school. Can you tell us what you’re doing now?
This year, I’m there more often – three full days versus the two for the Bridge Coach schedule. And then in terms of what I do there with the College Office, I would say that’s where I mainly am, but I’m also supporting the ELA department, specifically with 11th grade. And I’ve been working with two teachers –it’s five of us, specifically for 11th grade–but two of the teachers happened to be teachers that previously taught me. That transition has been really, really, really nice. And I never feel like my voice is not heard, even though I don’t have as great of a role in the process as they do as full time teachers.
Over the past year I’ve also worked with a lot more students with special needs and understanding the IEP process. Sitting in on those conversations, speaking with parents and learning the language used when you’re having those unique conversations. I’ve been able to work with a handful of students with special needs on a one on one basis and have become a go-to person in our office for their parents.
I also have a lot more parent interaction than I did before. Because of the pandemic, I think that a lot more families are just exposed to who I am. This year they see us really as a team in a way that they never have before, so I feel like just being a go-to person has really increased.
And then going into this upcoming semester, since the application work is mainly done, aside from financial aid support, we’re going to move to transitional work in our college access classes, preparing students for a college classroom and things like that. That’s really where I’m going to be leading most if not all those lessons.
Finally, I also do college access work on Saturdays at Pratt Institute in their Young Scholars Program. I work with 19 students from throughout the city. So I’ve been able to understand a lot more about how different college offices work at different high schools. Being able to understand how different college offices run, especially when you have a school that might have a lot more funding, like a Brooklyn Tech versus a smaller school, it’s just been really interesting and enlightening.
How have doing these different pieces of work shaped you and your own pathway?
On a personal level, my ability to socialize with other people and empathize and connect with them in ways that I couldn’t before this experience has really made me pay a lot more attention to where I could continue that work.
It’s also helped me understand my own learning process. Understanding how other students learn: when I was working with students, specifically, who had ADHD, I was seeing a lot of familiar things come out that made me think about my own educational experience. And seeing the accommodations that are available for students made me kind of take a step back and think whether or not I ever saw myself as a student in that space (i.e. someone who has ADHD).
One other thing that has been really nice is that I’ve been mentoring a lot of the new employees that the school has hired who are also fellow alumni. This year they contacted a lot of students who they knew recently graduated — to ask them to work for the school’s production department. Three of them happened to be students that I worked with in my first year as a Bridge Coach, so I was already very familiar with them. That’s been helpful for the school and also the students, to kind of keep that going.
Through the experience I’m always dropping tidbits about fellowship opportunities or grad school or reminding them they have my support. And Luz, the other Bridge Coach I worked with – who is also still there – does the same thing. It’s been really beautiful to kind of see that experience go full circle, while I’m still at TvF. And it’s something I find really interesting about the school that came about through this partnership, that they are hiring more alumni.
Circling back to where we began – what did you tell the Mayor – and would you tell us – are the educational priorities that the city needs to be tackling?
The first is about small schools – both small class size, and small schools, having a community of teachers and faculty members supporting a small student body and the impact that that had on my learning in high school and how I was able to really flourish because of that. In particular when I think about the college planning classes that I support, the students that I always find the easiest to support happen to be in the classes that are between 12 to 15 students. And obviously that’s strictly based on scheduling, and it’s impossible at other schools, but even in my class that are 22 to 24 students, I really see a difference. I think we only have one class that is at 28 or 29–I know the mandated capacity is 34. I can’t even imagine being able to get work done in those kinds of settings so, it really added that layer of knowledge to me and being able to defend that as something that the city should really be paying attention to.
The second thing is my experience doing terribly in college, having a terrible transition, and not performing well – and that we need to pay attention to persistence, not just who goes to college. I know that the DOE is always paying attention to post-secondary enrollment but they need to pay more attention to if students are able to maintain their status in college and stay in college after enrolling.
The final thing is my employment opportunity at my own high school like through a CBO, and what that meant to me, but also what that has since led to. I think that the DoE is looking towards existing school communities and who’s already there to be doing more than they already are doing, when instead I think there’s a lot of existing CBOs, like college access programs, that are already doing this work, but they haven’t been connected to the right school or don’t have the money to do so. And since there’s like an increase in a lot of budgets throughout the city because of statewide and nationwide COVID initiatives – those programs can be doing that work instead of putting the extra demands on people who already have so much on their plate.
As a junior attending Hunter College, Kimberly Polanco (age 20) is an aspiring teacher. As a College Bridge Coach at International Community High School, she hopes to not only build up her teaching skills, but to build up those students she works with everyday. Kimberly emphasizes the importance of students having someone that looks like them able to aid in their post-secondary planning. As a Latina woman, she uses her experiences and ambition to motivate her students towards the paths they wish to be on.
What was your motivation for becoming a College Bridge Coach?
I want to become a teacher, so I thought maybe working in a school as a school aide or just helping out would give me some source of experience. It is something that I can put on my resume and use when I start applying to schools once I obtain my teaching license.
What was the process like?
I went to talk to the school principal. I was not looking for something in particular, but in the school setting because I felt it is something that will help me a lot in my career. The principal recommended the CARA College Bridge Coach position and said, “I feel that you can be really good for this position and I feel that the students will get along with you really well, so I want you to do the training and talk to another coach about her experience.” This is how I learned about the position. I did not know what a Bridge Coach was and what the job description was. I remember looking at a Bridge Coach when I was a student, but I never thought that it was an actual job. Even though it is not the same as being a teacher, in a way you are like a mentor and the experience of working one-on-one with the students. I feel like it is practice for me and it helps me ask myself ‘How can I support the students? How can I explain this to them in a way that they understand, and not leave the office feeling confused or discouraged?’ Which is basically what the teachers are doing on a daily basis. Working one on one will make the process of being in a classroom easier for me.
I get a lot of satisfaction from doing this, just being able to help students. I can be working with one hundred students, and if I can help one and they leave the office feeling happy or motivated, I feel that my job is fulfilled. I never thought that I would like it –sometimes you feel that things are meant for you and this is what I feel. At first, I was scared and worried; I told my supervisor that there was no way students would come to me to ask for help and there was no way that I could connect with them. However, now they are so happy to see and work with me. The way they connect with me is unique.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this position?
As a Latina and someone that works closely with minority groups, sometimes we don’t feel represented in society, especially in college, school, work environments, and in the media. You don’t see a lot of people like us, which is something that makes me feel sad. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘That is the way society is structured,’ but I feel sometimes students don’t get the opportunity to work with people that look like them and motivate them.
I never thought that I was going to be able to be enrolled in college. I didn’t know the language and that made me feel like I didn’t matter, that I wasn’t important and that I didn’t have anything to offer. Now, I have a really important job in my hands where I can try to reach students, letting them know that they can apply to college. Even though they don’t know the language, they can go to college, obtain a degree, and start working on what they like.
This is part of my journey; finding that confidence and thinking that I can actually do it. For me, it is not just about helping students fill out applications and help them figure out what they want to do. It is more about helping them realize their potential, and that their status or where they come from does not define who they are. This is what I want to accomplish, help immigrant and minority students to feel represented.
Do you recommend this job to others?
I definitely recommend this job to other folks. If someone wants to become a teacher, I recommend something like this. I used to be shy and it took me a while to be able to speak up and give my opinion about things. This is something that scared me about this job and it made me ask myself if I was able to build a relationship with students. In this job, even though you are helping others, you are also helping yourself in life and in the workforce. When I used to have a problem, I always thought it was impossible to resolve it, but this job helped me realize that there is always a way to figure things out. This is something that I am implementing in my personal life. Training has helped me realize that I can navigate through my own life and figure things out on my own. It was hard for me to take initiative and be a leader for others, so this is something that this job has helped me with. For example, suggesting things to my supervisor. Trying to be positive. As a high school student I had a hard time figuring things out, so this job helps you to bring out a different side of yourself or find things in you that you never thought you had. Like being a role model for others.
What did you know about the YL role before going into the work?
During COVID It was hard to reach out (to counselors), only so much can be done through email. In my school we have this advisory period called “College Application” and it gives students guidance on applying to school, applying to financial aid, all of that. There was this form and it was sent out to kids that showed academic excellence and promise, students who showed support in the school. I am one of those students, and I was interested so I applied.. I didn’t know what it was at first, just that it was to help in the college office, but apparently it was to be a Youth Leader and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, I want to help.’
How has returning to the school after quarantine affected your peers and their thoughts on their own post-secondary plan?
A lot of the students now are trying to do their own individual things (aside from college) because the pandemic opened a lot more opportunities when it comes to employment and gaining income. A lot of students feel discouraged about college. Some students go to college to make their parents happy or for approval so they feel an obligation at first, but the pandemic helped students find more resources and opportunities to get employment. Kids are leaning more towards trade school and more specific training programs. However, some are still going towards the college/university route just to get a degree and make their way towards what they want to do in the future.
What have you learned so far? And what are you hoping to gain?
In general being a Youth Leader is helping me become a better multi tasker, I’m working with other students AND doing my own college applications and my own research so being a YL is providing me more flexibility to sit down and organize how I’m going to plan for the future for my peers…It’s good to experience new ways to do that.
I’m hoping to gain more insight on my other peers. A lot of my peers are very quiet about their post-secondary options, they feel excluded from everybody else. They don’t want to go to college so I’m hoping to gain more of a connection with them and hopefully gain their trust so they can give me their knowledge and I can learn from that.
What was your own journey to and through college like?
Choosing a college was really stressful. I didn’t have any help from my family or my mom. She still doesn’t really understand what college is or what it means to go. There were a lot of challenges with FAFSA verification because of the way my family filed taxes, and I had to figure it all out on my own. I wanted to go to school outside of NYC and the five boroughs,, but then I got pregnant, so I knew I needed to be close to home. I started at BMCC and then I finished undergrad at Queen’s College last semester. I think my love of learning helped me get through, and all the negativity I was hearing after I had a baby. People were telling me that I couldn’t do it and my life was ruined, but I turned all that around and used it as motivation. My daughter needs a role model, and I can be that person for her if I do what I need to.
Why did you become a Bridge coach, and why have you remained in the role?
My college counselor at the Academy for Careers in Television and Film (TvF) reached out to me because she knew I was already helping a lot of my friends with FAFSA and the TAP application. I like helping people so I thought it sounded like a great opportunity. Going to my high school as a staff member was weird at first, especially seeing teachers I used to give attitude to. But now I’m used to being their coworker. This is my fourth year as a coach. I keep coming back because of my students. Getting to help the students and then seeing the outcomes makes it all worth it. Last year two of our kids got full rides to NYU, and it was one of the happiest moments of the whole year.
How is the college process for the students you work with different from your own experience?
The process for my students is really different. If I’d had a coach, I wouldn’t have felt so alone through it all. I was pretty good at keeping up with stuff over the summer after graduation, but my friends would have benefited so much from having someone to keep harassing them to turn in all their stuff to actually enroll in college in the fall. At TvF we recently had a staff retreat to talk about the college process, and we spent time looking over the numbers from before and after my coworker and I started as Bridge coaches. I couldn’t believe the difference. So many more students are actually matriculating now, and it’s amazing.
How have you grown during your time as a Bridge coach?
A big thing for me has been learning to advocate. I always would stand up for myself and my students, but now I know how to do it professionally and with the right sort of language so people really listen. Another big thing I’ve learned is to not take things so personally. At the beginning I took everything to heart, and would get upset when I’d tell someone to do something and they’d do something else instead. Now I can respect my students’ decisions a lot more. Instead of me just telling them what to do, it’s more about them telling me what they want and then the two of us figuring out together what makes the most sense.
How did your work as a Bridge coach lead you to your new role in college access, and how is it going?
After I finished at Queens College, I heard from CARA about a maternity leave coverage role leading the Student Success Center at Mott Haven for Right to College. All the experience I had as a Bridge coach caught their attention, like the work I did with the toolkit for undocumented students, and all the different ways I’ve used data and spreadsheets to keep track of student progress. Everything I learned as a Bridge coach is related, and it all helps me now. The difference here is that I’m in charge, and supervising four high school peer leaders. I’ve had to work on delegating, which is hard. Sometimes I know I could do something faster, but it’s important to teach them to do things so they learn. I’m already kind of doing my dream job, but ultimately I want to get my master’s degree and be a college counselor at the DOE. All these steps I’m taking little by little will lead me down that road.
What do you remember about your time as a Youth Leader?
I became a Youth Leader my junior year and immediately fell in love with it. My high school journey was about me finding my voice and that was the outlet I needed to use it in an appropriate way. I was a high achieving student and didn’t always know how to manage that. Being a Youth Leader gave me a positive way to be seen.
I remember the sense of empowerment and adrenaline rush of the events we planned – like field day when we would bring the whole campus together to learn about college. We had camaraderie and were invested in each other’s success.
I wrote about being a Youth Leader in my personal statement for graduate school. I talked about how we had lots of resources in the community but no one in the school was hearing about them. I really liked my counselor but she had too much on her plate. As a Youth Leader I was there to support her vision for her students and fill in the gaps she couldn’t do because of the constraints of her job. No one had the time to show them schools that were outside of their immediate reality – and I got to do that.
How did being a Youth Leader lead you to what you are doing now?
In high school I had no direction as to where I was going. I had cocky arrogance that I could do a lot – but I had no idea what it would be. I was the youngest of three – my older sisters were high performing students and started at two year CUNYs. They needed help finding their path. My parents – they pushed us very hard academically – but I wondered how we were such good students but couldn’t get to where we really wanted to be. When I was a Youth Leader I learned about Eugene Lang College – I liked it and so I applied to and got in with a good package.
Because of all of the skills I learned about advocacy as a Youth Leader, I asked my college if I could do my work-study position with the SSC at my high school. I got to keep helping my community… I was a psychology major and wanted to be a school psychologist at first – but then I looked into counseling and realized that I had a lot of skills from being a Youth Leader so I decided to pursue a Masters in Counseling after I graduated.
While I was doing my Masters, I became a Parent Coordinator at A. Philip Randolph High School. They ended up having three counselor openings – one for special education, one for the 9th grade, and a college counseling one. The principal really wanted me to do the 9th grade position – he did not know I had been a Youth Leader before. He asked me to give him a good reason for being the college counselor – I said, “I have six years of experience and passion and knowledge.”
What is important about being a Youth Leader?
As a Youth Leader it was really important to me that I helped other students become first-gen to college because I am one too. I helped them find post-secondary options that they did not know were open to them.
One student that I helped didn’t care too much about school when I first met him. He was very nonchalant. When I first approached him when he was a junior to come to a workshop I was running about SAT day, he wasn’t too interested in college. His senior year the Student Success Center got an SAT prep class and I encouraged him to come. He came to the first session and I saw a shift in his mindset. He saw other people doing it – and then started attending every workshop we offered: resume development, learning about CUNY, exploring careers, everything. He even came on the college trips we planned. He didn’t have anyone in his life who went to college and so not being exposed to it he wasn’t thinking about it – but then when the SSC exposed him he dedicated himself. I helped him with Common App, financial aid, FAFSA, a career interest survey. He is now at SUNY Oneonta.
What is one of the most important focus for high schoolers?
One thing we stressed as an SSC that our school lacked was early awareness. When I was a freshman we never talked about college; we just talked about sophomore year. That has totally shifted at the Mott Haven campus. We have freshmen doing research on college early on. Sophomores and juniors are doing personal statements. We notice more students going away to college. We push them to not limit themselves – but also to take advantage of all the CUNY system has to offer.
What are real life skills you learned being a Youth Leader?
As a Youth Leader you deal with an abundance of students. You deal with people who work at a faster pace and others that require more time. That has taught me life skills – being sympathetic and mature and balancing many things in life. The SSC helped prepare me for college. It also helped me with public speaking – running all of those workshops and getting people’s attention. It helped me to communicate in a more professional workspace and to represent myself well. It helped prepare me for The Ellen Show which I got on because my supervisor wrote into the show about me!
Special Bonus: Check out this clip of Angel on The Ellen Show: Ellen’s Surprise for Aspiring Teen Report Brings Him to Tears
As an immigrant, what has the college process been like for you?
I came here in the eighth grade, and then went to Flushing International the next year. I didn’t do a lot of research on schools or even think about college that much—it was just about learning the language and understanding what was going on. Because of the language barrier, I was scared to apply to SUNY or private schools. I did limit myself in that way.
Now I’m at John Jay and about to graduate with a major in forensic psychology. My short-term goal is to be a mental health counselor, and my long-term goal is to be a clinical psychologist. I want to work with adolescents.
What’s been different about your coaching experience than your peers working at traditional high schools?
Since our students are so new and still learning the language, they don’t always know the terms that colleges use. So I’m always trying to bring in vocabulary and definitions when I do workshops in classrooms. And there’s also a lot of teaching about the whole college experience in the United States—how you have to apply, and get accepted, and then pay for it. And it’s also about careers. I have a student who wants to be a doctor. In her country, that’s five years of school. When I explained about undergrad, and then a test, and then applying to med school, and then a residency, she started to see how different it is here. Our youth leaders (from Right to College) also do a great job teaching about the different types of schools starting in 11th grade.
In general, what strengths do you see your students bringing to the process?
They can really handle a lot of setbacks. They came here, they maybe had a rough time learning the language, they’re adjusting to the whole new systems and cultures—they’ve been through a lot already. They’re resilient, and not afraid of challenges. There are students who we can suggest things to and they just say sure, okay, let me try. There’s a lot of commitment.
Are there any challenges in working at an international school?
I have a lot of undocumented students. So they’re dealing with being first-generation and low-income, but also their citizenship and the fears of identifying their status. Now there’s the DREAM Act, so they can get TAP money, but there’s still not the same amount of money for them as for other students. And I can’t just go into a classroom and say, let’s fill out FAFSA together. Half the class might not even be able to apply, and that’s going to bring up a lot of emotions. It has to start with a one-on-one conversation about students and what college means for them, and then figuring out how to go through the process.
What do you enjoy about working at an international high school?
I can really relate to what they’re going through. I went through the same thing when I came here. I want the students to see me as someone they can look up to—I was a recent immigrant who knew nothing about the system, but I got into a college. It doesn’t even really matter which college, but just that I could do it. And since we’re close in age, I think it’s easier for them to approach me and share their concerns and fears than it might be with someone who’s a lot older. The work I’m doing is making a difference. I get to see outcomes, and it’s so rewarding. I even have students who graduate from high school and still come back to ask me questions or thank me for the help. Being here at Flushing has helped me be more successful in my own life, because I see how much what I’m doing matters.
Rishana is a second year Peer Leader at BMCC’s Learning Academy and has taken on a leadership role through CARA’s Peer Leader Fellows program. Rishana graduated with her Associates in Business Administration from BMCC in May 2019 and is now a student at Baruch College majoring in Finance. Rishana was a recipient of BMCC’s Foundation Scholarship at BMCCl, and is also serving as a “Peer Fellow” at CARA, helping to design and run training for new Peer Leaders.
What is something you have done as a peer leader you feel particularly proud of?
I really was proud of helping one of my Mentees get a scholarship. She only saw BMCC as a community college and she didn’t have a good view on community colleges so she was planning on transferring to Albany right after two semesters. I told her that BMCC had a lot to offer and told her about all of the things that were available. I told her about a scholarship that I got that my professor helped me with… She emailed me this semester and told me she received the scholarship and she is now more excited to stay.
I also got a few students off probation. One girl was close to graduating but fell behind. She came to me every other week and when I last checked her grades she had all great grades and got off of probation. I think being the person that cares about what she was doing and her progress helped her. Sometimes you need a little extra push and I was that person for her who helped her go to tutoring and find her own style and make it work for her.
I worked with other students whose GPAs went up. One girl was not close to graduating and had a lot of issues with her family. I told her to download “My Study Life” and made her go to tutoring every week. I also helped her speak to professors when something was not clear. She took all of my advice and was able to get her grades up.
What impact have you seen peer leaders have in your program/at your campus?
Peer Leaders have a great impact on the students. At the Learning Academy we are mostly involved with seminars as a “second help” to students whenever they have a question. Every seminar has a different focus like “transfer” or “navigating your first year”. We are helping students as students because we better relate to students than advisors. They may be intimidated or shy but feel more comfortable talking to a peer leader and asking “what they really want to know”.
Why did you want to be a peer leader?
When I first start at BMCC I was like every other first year student, confused and not knowing what is going on, But then I got this email about Peer Leaders so I thought it was mandatory so I signed up. I had my first meeting with a peer leader and I really connected with her. She told me about the services and I thought, “Wow, this was helpful”. She helped me understand the campus and even with a class that I was having a hard time with. She was very encouraging and I thought that I wanted to be who she was to me for someone else.