A high school group where it’s great to be an outsider

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Transitioning into any new environment is never easy. But it’s likely few experiences compare to the sudden fish-out-of-water feeling nearly every teenager gets when he or she walks into a high school for the first time.

Yet these years are pivotal, setting the tone for the rest of someone’s life. Being ready to confront that pressure — and succeeding — is something Aisha Baiocchi and AnnaBelle Medina think about a lot. They might be incoming seniors at the High School of American Studies, but even they felt like outsiders once, and other freshmen likely feel the same.

That’s where their group, Outsiders Guide, steps in. The online volunteer effort is fueled by a team made up of mostly students of color providing advice and information on different aspects of their high school experience, whether it’s something simple like good note-taking, to details on the college admissions process.

“Adjusting in general to a specialized school is really hard, and I know it is a common experience,” Baiocchi said. “I realized that creating a resource that would exist for all students to access would be really helpful.”

Those students share their experiences from different classes and environments, hopefully providing advice for others. The group’s website at OutsidersGuide.net features a directory listing different internships, jobs, and volunteer opportunities.

The site also features a news page written by other high school students, sharing what’s happening on different campuses throughout the city. It even provides cultural experiences, helping just about anyone adjust to their new environment.

As a tutor, Baiocchi helped some of these very students get accepted into specialized high schools. But once everything locked down in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Baiocchi realized she could no longer be there for these students, forcing her to think of other ways she could reach out and help many of them adjust to high school.

Baiocchi knew she wasn’t alone in these feelings, reaching out to classmate Medina to be a part of it. As students of color themselves, they felt that they could speak about their personal experiences in a specialized high school.

And a project like this was right up Medina’s alley anyway, since she’s interested in public education with hopes to establish a future career fighting education inequality.

“If I could share my experiences that were unpleasant and very difficult at times that could help another student have a less difficult experience, then I would want to share that,” Medina said.

The Outsiders Guide’s cultural page also addresses the culture shock of achieving this new educational and social level, dealing with assumptions and so-called microaggressions.

“We encourage everyone who submits something to talk as honestly and blatantly about race and culture as they can,” Baiocchi said. “There is so much coded language about race and culture in these schools, and that can make it really hard to navigate.”

More often than not, the success a student might have journeying through the college process depends on if their parents went to college. Outsiders Guide eliminates that disadvantage for students who might be the first in their family heading to college, Baiocchi said, providing information on tests, resume building, scholarships, internships, and free options for preparing for the SAT and ACT.

The website also can help parents, Baiocchi added, since it provides information that working parents may not have proper access to since they may not be able to attend school meetings.

To get the word out about their new endeavor, Medina and Baiocchi have sent emails to various organizations around the city, especially those that primarily serve students. They also have reached out to teachers and guidance counselors, and soon will even add principals to that list.

If anyone visiting the site has a question, they may find a pretty fast response, since Medina and Baiocchi readily check their emails. They also maintain an Outsiders Guide Instagram account, which also accepts direct messages from students.

And like any new venture, there’s room to grow. To help accommodate this, the website also includes a suggestions page, accepting feedback from their peers on how they can make Outsiders Guide better.

But all good things must end, and that includes the time Medina and Baiocchi have at American Studies. This time next year, they expect to be in college. Although they would like to continue their involvement in the Outsiders Guide even after picking up their diploma, they expect to hand over the reins to the next generation of leaders.

“When you see a student of color become successful, it can be really inspiring and give you that edge to keep working hard,” Medina said. “It is really inspiring to see people who look like you succeed.”

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