An outdoor celebration was held this past Friday for Arlington’s first-generation college students.
AHC Inc., a local nonprofit affordable housing developer, hosted a “College Signing Day” outside at the Gates of Ballston Community Center for 31 high school seniors who took part in the organization’s College and Career Readiness Program.
Students in the program are attending a multitude of universities including James Madison, Virginia Military Institute, Harvard, Tufts, and Yale — with many receiving scholarships and grants.
The students all come from lower-income families and most live in an AHC community, with 28 out of the 31 seniors in the program being first-generation college students.
In front of the community center, students snapped photos, picked up college t-shirts, and ate pizza. There was a considerable amount of pride, relief, nervousness, and excitement from the students for what lies ahead for them in their future.
“I’m all the emotions,” chuckles Mahia Rahmen, a senior at Washington-Liberty. She’s going to Harvard, earning several notable scholarships. She’s also the first member of her family, which is originally from Bangladesh, to go to a four-year college or university.
“I’m kinda upset about leaving my family and my old life behind,” Rahmen says. “But, overall, very, very excited.”
The College and Career Readiness program began in the fall of 2016 and this is the largest class yet.
Milenka Coronel, the program’s first manager, says the intention is to help 11th and 12th grade students to go through the college admissions process, from applications to applying for scholarships to choosing which institution is right for them. With high school guidance counselors stretched thin, programs like this help fill in gaps and reach those who may need a little extra support.
“What’s unique about us is that we are in their community,” says Coronel. “We are where they live which creates easier access.”
She says a lot of the students are also caretakers, helping parents and younger siblings adjust to this incredibly difficult year for all.
“They are managing so many things at once, but I’m in awe… they preserved,” Coronel says.
It’s clear that the historic nature of the past year has influenced the students, even leading several to rethink what their future might hold.
Elena Ogbe, who’s attending James Madison University after she graduates from Wakefield High School next month, says she still plans on majoring in nursing, but now also wants to minor in African-American studies.
“I’m realizing how much knowledge I’m missing and how much our past history has been overlooked,” Ogbe says, whose family is from Eritrea. “It really woke me up to realize that I need to start learning more and educating myself.”
Abel Geleta is a current Washington-Liberty senior and soon-to-be freshman at Yale. He moved to Arlington from Ethiopia with his family a decade ago. His plan is to study to be a civil rights lawyer.
“I want to help people that might be facing challenges when it comes to the justice system, which can be corrupt and disproportionately affect people of color,” Geleta said.
This year, about 50 juniors and seniors were in the program, but the hope is to expand it to 75 students next year. Additionally, Coronel wants to reach younger students, perhaps as early as fifth grade, to help them reach their full potential by removing barriers to opportunity.
She says it’s about connecting with the students, showing them success stories, and, sometimes, simply just giving encouragement.
“All our staff, the three of us that lead the program, are also first-generation students,” says Coronel, “So we really walked in their shoes. We understand what they’re going through.”
While extremely proud of his success, Geleta admits there’s some anxiety that comes with it.
“It’s a lot of pressure… being the first person in your family to go to college,” he says. “My parents sacrificed their livelihood in Ethiopia to come here and worked hard… to provide me with the best environment to be successful. I’m looking to pay that back.”
Geleta also has a younger brother. When asked if he thinks about setting an example for him, he smiles.
“Yeah, I do,” he says. “I want to be a role model for him.”