As my feet pounded the pavement during the marathon I was surprised to be running, I thought back to seventh grade.
I was a student at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, but everyone there called it WHEELS, and I was in Ms. Aberger’s class for College 101 week. Throughout that week, we learned about following the path to get to college. We learned about choosing majors of interest, moving away from home, and writing theses. We even learned about the University of Notre Dame and its renowned football games.
I recall telling my mother about what we were learning. As a woman who migrated from the Dominican Republic a year before I was born, she was excited to hear I was being exposed to something — confidence that a college education was in reach — that she’d wished for.
Thinking about college in the seventh grade felt normal for me. I knew college was the ultimate goal after high school so the more mentally prepared I was, the better. I wasn’t concerned about how to pay for college or even about going away for college at the time. I knew it would be revisited later on during my WHEELS stay as a student, where I would learn about all the logistics. I was just happy to be on the right path.
That seventh-grade class kicked off a theme that followed me throughout my entire time as a WHEELS student: that getting to and through college was a very important value.
Nowhere was that theme more palpable than in the College Access Room, known as the CAR to students and people at the school. I felt very blessed to have been part of the first class to experience the room, which was created in 2013 as a space for students to work on all things college.
The CAR was home to the college counselors at WHEELS but also a second home to us, the students. Any time we had a question or an issue regarding college applications, we were able to receive help there. The college counselors helped with filling out college applications, applying for financial aid, and helping us craft our personal statements.
Visiting the CAR nearly every day helped me cultivate a great relationship with my college counselor, Ms. Osorio. I would walk her through every step of my college application process and speak to her about personal issues when I needed advice. When it became time to request recommendation letters for our college applications, Ms. Osorio was the first person I asked. I felt confident in her ability to speak well of me as she saw me grow academically, professionally, and personally. She was an important part of my college application process as a high school student and I wanted that to be known through her testimony.
Students in many schools don’t have the advantage of having faculty to help them out individually with their college transition process, so I was extremely grateful to have this resource. The CAR was like a second home to me. It helped me overcome the fears I had developed about paying for college, adjusting to a different school, and being away from my family. The counselors there always assured me that college was going to be a reality for me and they would be the resources to help me throughout my journey. And since they had known me as a student for years, I trusted that they would have my best interests in mind.
Without the CAR, I don’t think I would’ve been as prepared for college. The counselors helped me get admitted to SUNY Old Westbury, my top choice. Their around-the-clock support helped me prepare with my application and, most importantly, helped me stay on track during my college career. The CAR counselors would often check in with me and visit me in college to ensure I had the support I needed to graduate.
My sophomore year at SUNY Old Westbury was a tough one, where I went through some emotionally challenging situations and, as a result, the quality of my work declined. Ms. Batke, the WHEELS college counselor at the time, had scheduled a visit to my school to get an update on my academics and college life. I explained to her what I was enduring and how I had a lack of motivation. She was extremely supportive and reassured me that she and the WHEELS team are my family, people I could reach out to if I needed anything.
Her visit reminded me of how much WHEELS kept their promise of helping us get into college and beyond. This moment was when I realized I had chosen the right school to lead me into this new chapter of my life. Ms. Batke continued checking in with me at least once every semester after that. Thankfully, I was in a better place when she reached out to me the next semester. I was doing better in classes and I began getting back into my rhythm of taking life day by day.
That my high school school stuck with me through the marathon that is getting ready for college, applying, and graduating has been a defining aspect of my life. So when members of the school’s booster group, Friends of WHEELS, encouraged me to run the New York City marathon to raise money for the school, I was game.
The preparation was challenging, and the experience was grueling. But Friends of WHEELS supporters lined the marathon route for the first 13 miles, and I knew my mother and was waiting to cheer me on at mile 20. It felt like I was never going to get there but as soon as I saw them, I got an instant energy boost. Having them support me on the course really kept me going.
With just three miles left, I was jogging really slowly and beginning to envision myself crawling to the finish line. But then I thought about the advice a fellow runner had given me at the beginning of the marathon: “Don’t worry about time, just worry about finishing!” After 6 hours and 17 minutes, I did, raising nearly $4,000 for Friends of WHEELS.
My experience in the race paralleled what I felt preparing for and applying to college: The end can feels so far away when you’re so close. But with support and encouragement, hard journeys can end in achievement.
I’m now enrolled in graduate school, studying to become a journalist. The finish line of a master’s degree is in sight, something I could hardly have imagined on my first day at WHEELS. The race continues, but the lessons and sense of support I developed in the CAR back in high school, and Ms. Aberger’s class in middle school are keeping me going.
Karla Arroyo is a student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
This year, Chalkbeat reporters are examining whether students from struggling schools are prepared for college — and whether colleges are prepared for them. Catch up on the Ready or Not series here.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.