What College Means

I come from a humble family. Living in the heart of Brooklyn, gentrification had brought down its colossal hand and made our home unaffordable. I remember my mother crying because we barely had enough money at the end of the month--because she didn't know how we would make it. The countless close calls.

Even with our hardships, my family felt higher education was important for me to have a good life and be successful. But all I saw were two parents who had gone to college but weren't doing anything with their degrees. Their careers have nothing to do with what they studied.

It seemed a waste to put that much effort into something you don't end up using. After 16 years of school, why would I want to go back to school for a career I didn't love? Attending college was doubtful.

Reading stories about people making their own success without a college degree, I really started rethinking my journey. I became afraid of what going to college would mean for my life: was it worth going into mountains of debt? Application deadlines drew nearer, and I wasn't any closer to making a decision.

When I finally went to a college guidance counselor for information and support, I just didn't bother listening. She didn't know me, she didn't know my problems, she didn't understand my concerns.

Luckily, she referred me to a program called College Summit, an organization dedicated to helping students get to college. I had no idea where this would take me, but it was unquestionably one of the best decisions I've ever made.

"It begins with a four-day workshop that will change your life," College Summit said. "Four days, four years, for life." I accepted the invite, and was off to a College Summit workshop to become a "Peer Leader."

I rode a bus for seven hours up to Daemen College, alongside students who were strangers to me. This would be my first time on a college campus, and I had no idea what to expect.

Upon arriving, people in "College Summit" shirts ran toward us, screaming "WELCOME! YOU MADE IT!" Over the course of the next four days, I learned what they meant. I learned what college really meant--and what it could do for me.

More importantly, I felt like I deserved to go to college for the first time in my life. I sat in classrooms with students from different high schools, different backgrounds, and different struggles. And yet, we were all the same. We shared heartbreaking tales, times we were beaten down and made to feel unworthy.

I realized that I wasn't alone, that there were kids out there just like me, and that we had the power to change how we approached college and beyond. I came home from the workshop with a newfound belief that I could be successful, and that I had the ability to help others come to the same realization.

Now, two years later, I'm a video arts and technology major at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.

That workshop weekend, I realized that I wanted more, that I was driven to achieve more than I thought I could. I wanted my friends to feel that drive too. So many of them were frustrated and confused by the application process--or, like me, were disenchanted by the idea of college. To help, I organized FAFSA information sessions, ran personal statement workshops, and sat down with classmates one-on-one to help them get through their application.

Getting my college acceptance letter in the mail is one of my proudest achievements. But knowing that I was able to get over 70 percent of my graduating class to apply AND get accepted into college is something I will be proud of for the rest of my life.

They followed my lead - not because I had the title "College Summit Peer Leader," but because they knew I understood what they were going through. At my College Summit training I saw directly the power of a fellow classmate telling me what I'm capable of, that I could get financial aid, and that I was worth a higher education. Hearing a peer telling me this was worth much more than just another adult talking about how it was for them.

The most powerful influence on a teenager is another teenager. Our shared experiences give us perspective and help us believe in ourselves and overcome any obstacles. I'm proud that I was able to be a friend and a mentor.