Peer Leader Stories
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.
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.