The college climb

Students strive for family first

First in an occasional series


On a recent afternoon after the start of the school year, high school seniors Diamond Brown, Vanessa Nuñez and Korbin Valenzuela were sitting around a table in the “college loft” at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center (KHCC). They were griping to each other about common woes in the college application process: how do you get teachers to write your recommendation letter? What if I do worse on my SATs this time around? Should I rewrite my college essay?

But these students have to grapple with more than just the Common Application. Diamond is black, Vanessa and Korbin are Latino — two groups underrepresented in college. Diamond and Korbin would be the first members of their families to go to college, while Vanessa, whose sister goes to SUNY Cobleskill, would be part of the first generation in her family to attend an institute of higher education. Diamond having a mother who did not go to college makes the application process harder.

“Who do you go to when you’re stuck and not necessarily like you don’t believe in yourself, but you don’t know the next step?” said the gregarious Kingsbridge Heights resident. “It’s like I need to do the SATs and I need to do my essay, but I’m not the best writer. Who do I go to? And my mom can’t help me because she didn’t even finish high school.”

Diamond said her mom does not appreciate the importance of the SAT scores.

“She’s like oh, SAT prep, it’s whatever. Sometimes I have to explain to her without my SATs, I’m not going to the schools that I want to go to,” the student explained. “She’s very supportive of me getting my grades up and sticking to what I got to do, but when it comes to tests, she’s not the person to talk to.”

Korbin, a confident young man who is quick to smile, agreed.

“[My mom] doesn’t really know the importance of the SATs and coming to the center,” said the IN-Tech Academy student. “I try to tell her, but she’s like oh, okay. But get your grades up and that’s it. That’s what she cares about.”

“They don’t know anything about the process,” added Vanessa, a thoughtful girl who is the most reserved of the three students. “My mom, she understands there’s a lot you need to do, but she doesn’t know how to help.”

“My mom didn’t even know you needed an essay,” said Diamond.

When parents lack the necessary knowledge and school resources are stretched too thin, community organizations like KHCC step in to fill the gap.

“I think the center helps you with the whole package. If it wasn’t for the center, I don’t think I would have the grades that I have now, and I don’t think I would have a strong profile for college,” said Diamond, adding that her KHCC counselor JC Soto has answered her frantic late-night text messages. “So I feel like they put me in a position where I can be like, I may not be 100-percent ready, but I know what I’m getting myself into.”

When asked if she thinks that minorities have more challenges on the path to college, Diamond took issue with the question.

“I hate that word so much, it gives me goose bumps. I don’t like to give myself a label because I feel like when you put ‘minority,’ it’s a statistic,” she said. “They always make it seem like, ‘Oh, you’re a minority, so you’re going to drop out and you’re not going to do well.’ And I feel like that’s not always the case.”

“I’m a minority but okay, I go to school, I get good grades, I’m in school every day,” she continued. “You don’t have to call me a minority. I feel like that’s a negative term for people who live in the Bronx of color.”

“I think the opposite of that,” countered Korbin. “When they call me a minority, I feel like it’s what people expect from you, like they just think of a minority being someone who’s poor, or…”

“Or stupid,” Diamond filled in.

“Yeah, but I’m going to be the one that gets out of the statistics, I’m not going to be part of the percentage that’s not doing good,” said Korbin. “I’m going to be part of the outside, the minority that’s doing good in life and inspiring other people to do better.”

“But they never give that minority credit,” said Diamond.

“No, but I’m going to be the one they are going to give credit to,” Korbin said confidently.

“Exactly, that just pushes us to do better,” said Vanessa, who goes to the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan.

All three are still finalizing their list of schools to apply to, but Diamond and Vanessa already have their sights set on Syracuse. Diamond also has Lehigh University in her top two choices, while Vanessa said SUNY New Paltz is her other top choice. Korbin said right now, he is thinking about LIU Post.

Diamond faces another unique challenge: her family briefly moved to Boston over the summer where she started her senior year, but they moved back to Kingsbridge last week. She did not want to go back to her old school, Eximius College Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx, so as of press time, she was still waiting to find out where she can go.

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