Four days before the new year starts, four days after my holiday break started I am sitting in a Starbucks helping a few of my students still submitting college applications. Ed Sheeran playing overhead, my caramel latte getting cold as I review another supplement. These are the knuckleheads who didn’t adhere to deadlines, who did the work but didn’t work as hard as I expected them to during the school day, who deal with anxiety, the ones who work one or two jobs, or have family responsibilities that have them play the role of parent instead of a “regular” teenager. I could’ve easily said no, not replied to my email, ignore it, forget it, schools out! But being a college counselor, my heart is just as invested in my profession as anything else.
Three years ago, I earned the opportunity to work in the same neighborhood that nurtured me. I grew up in the Southside of Williamsburg in 1994, years before my parents would move us to the Marcy Projects. My family migrated to Los Sures partially because there were a bunch of Dominicans living there from the same town in DR I was born in. Los Sures in 1994 was stuck between watching Trinitarios run rampant, watching someone split a guy’s skull open with an aluminum bat, graffiti, the guy selling corn on the cob off a supermarket cart, getting a pekosa because I picked up one of the little bright baggies off the floor in the park, to the first hipster bike shop opening up on the corner of south 3rd. That year gentrification would pour my beloved Southside’s guts all over the cracked cement streets. Only to be swept up and piled into compost garbage bins, raised our rent, displaced us, replaced my bodegas with delicatessens and populated our community with hipsters.
It was important to me to work in a neighborhood I felt we lost. Williamsburg slipped right through our fingers, because my parent’s agenda was different. They were surviving, living paycheck to paycheck, trying to figure out life here for their three kids. With our motherland feeling further away each passing day. Presently, my dad will tell countless stories of buildings that were offered to him for only $15G’s, countless friends that would try to convince him to invest in a business. He said no, kept his head down working construction, putting food on our table, doing what he thought was best. There was no room for risk when you had kids and a wife to feed at home.
My siblings and I went through the public school system. Educated in neighborhood schools, we were the poster children for afterschool programs like the YMCA. I was a self-proclaimed nerd, too school for cool; I adored my pink Medicaid glasses, had a hefty overdue bill from the Brooklyn Public Library on Division Ave. I would spend more time in school than at home. On the weekends, when I wasn’t riding my bike in the park, I had my longhaired head buried in yet another book.
My life reveals full circle moments as I continue on this journey. Three years ago I was offered a college counseling position in the neighborhood that watched me grow. A few blocks away from the Marcy Projects that taught me everything I didn’t want to be. Gentrification has a way of cutting you deep inside making you feel helpless. Being in this school helped fixed that. I would get my chance at giving back to my communities. As fate would have it the superintendent of my school district was my AP when I was in junior high school. The AP who would always give me a new book to read, who never missed a holiday recital, a strict Polish woman who was a constant positive influence. Someone instrumental to my education, and I would be working in the same building and system as her. This reminded me that we BEEN here. A reminder we still have work to do. A reminder that we are changing our landscapes even if our families may not have moved in a way that was quick enough for corporate America. But we made strides regardless.
So far, I can say that I have helped over 100 students in our “consistently struggling” school solidify a post-secondary plan. Our past two graduating classes have amassed close to 1.1 million dollars in financial aid. These students have received full scholarships to institutions like NYU, St. Lawrence University, Utica, Sage Colleges of Albany, etc. They have earned spots in Educational Opportunity Programs in SUNY campuses. The ones that decided to stay in the city and go to a CUNY school were still supported by programs that will ensure they graduate and have resources to complete their goals.
My colleagues and I agree that college counseling is just as much social justice than anything else. Helping to break the cycle of poverty by facilitating our students’ opportunities that they would not have otherwise. Our work rises far above just filling out college applications, and sending in transcripts. We are mothers, fathers, older sisters, lawyers, snack givers, story tellers, mediators, tear dryers, positive vibes always, comfort giving… and yes the kind of people that will respond to texts and emails in the middle of our break to make sure my student got what they needed because that’s the only way I know how counsel, Heart Full. ❤