Surviving College

Kerolos wants to be a cop but making it through college may be the hardest thing he will do.

Photo of Susanna Williams
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Kerolos was wearing a St. John’s University sweatshirt when he picked me up in his Lyft car (although he also drives for Uber). Kerolos was coming over the bridge from Staten Island, where he lives, so the timing was perfect and his brother had just messaged him that Manhattan was dead. He was happy to take me JFK. He grew up in Bay Ridge. His mom still lives on 77th. He used to hang out on Shore Road- “When you’re a kid and you don’t have any money, there’s still so much to do in Bay Ridge....” He delivered pizza for almost every joint in the neighborhood (“Elegante up on 5th has the best slices, but for grandma squares, ya’ gotta go to Pizza Wagon.”). He just moved to Staten Island a few months ago—he figured it was time to move out of his mom’s house and start his life. He likes Staten Island. It’s quiet.

Kerolos is the prototypical American dreamer—he’s first-generation everything. His parents came here from Egypt. His dad died when he was in high school and Kerolos became the man of the house. He dropped out of high school to run his family business—a halal cart in midtown Manhattan. For eight years he worked sweltering days and frigid nights. It was hard, back-breaking work. At first, he was really proud to be earning money for his family, but eventually he realized that his mother was right—school was the only way to get a future.

He signed up for GED prep classes at Kingsborough Community College, just off the B1 bus line from Bay Ridge. Kerolos took the pre-test and the teacher told him to sign up for the test right away—his scores were unlike any she’d seen.  He passed the GED test on the first try, found it easy. He was one of only four students to pass that day. “Not everyone took it seriously—I just kept my head down and didn’t hang out, didn’t talk to anyone else.”

His next stop was the College of Staten Island (CSI). CSI is the CUNY outpost on Staten Island. As an open-access institution, its mission is to serve the people of New York’s smallest borough. But Kerolos didn’t know that it was open access. He was excited to apply, thrilled to be accepted. He gave them the $60 application fee they requested. He gave them the $150 registration fee they requested. He tried to work his way through the financial aid forms (“I take care of myself, but they wanted my mom’s tax records going back years…”). And then… nothing. No emails. No information. No communication. “They were quick to take my money,” he said, “but too slow to help.” Kerolos drifted away and the dream of school disappeared.

This fall, his brother moved to the States from Egypt and cajoled Kerolos to apply again-- “Education, man, we gotta go to school!” So Kerolos applied again. And paid the $60 application fee again. And waited. Again. This time, however, he happened to make an appointment with a counselor who remembered him from his last foray. “What happened to you?” she asked. “I never got assigned any classes!” Kerolos said. “That’s not how it works,” she told him, “You have to sign up.” She wrote her cell phone number on the back of her card and handed it to him, promising to help walk him through the financial aid paperwork and anything else he needed.

“I just want to hit my 60 [credits] and join the NYPD,” Kerolos said. He’ll have to survive college first.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe what you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research. (Ex: Good advisors make a difference.)

Higher education puts up endless barriers to student success and too much is left to chance.


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Photo of Molly McMahon

Hey Susan -- you might like Charlie's interview with a school counselor on working with immigrants and first generation college students. I think it might inspire you especially for the upcoming Ideate phase.

Photo of Susanna Williams

Thanks! Good connection. This ties directly to something I've been thinking about-- what if we viewed first gen college students as immigrants, regardless of whether they actually are geographically? 

Photo of Molly McMahon

Ohhh.... that will be such a good post in the Ideate phase. I think it will light up a great dialogue. Super interesting... 

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