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A group of college students wearing protective face masks walk down steps inside a university building.

“Two years after starting college, I’m on the path to becoming the first in my family to graduate from college, but I know how easy it is to fall off track, particularly for low-income students,” writes Kellyah Bernardez.

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A ‘bridge’ program made it possible for me to start college. Now, I’m paying it forward.

High school seniors need more help navigating college admission and enrollment.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

When I started my senior year of high school in 2019, I dreamed of prom, graduation, and moving toward a new life as a college student. 

I thought I knew everything. After all, I had strong grades at a New York City public school and worked with a school counselor who advised me on my college applications. Then, just as college acceptances started coming in, COVID hit. With school buildings closed, I met with my advisers on Zoom and finished my senior project remotely.  

Headshot of a young woman wearing a read shirt.

Kellyah Bernardez

Courtesy photo

I wasn’t focused on school, though; I was focused on my family. Several family members died from COVID. My father lost his job. My mother was teaching pre-school remotely. My older sister was working in a grocery store, and we all feared that she would get COVID and pass it on to us. 

That strange, sad, and scary spring, I accepted an offer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York, then I quickly put college out of my head for the summer. But instead of frolicking at beaches with friends, I never strayed far from my apartment in Upper Manhattan. 

In my neighborhood, one out of 221 people died from COVID, and the case rate was twice as high as the New York City average: 27,095 cases per 100,000 people compared to 12,611 citywide, according to data from the New York City health department.  

In July, I received an email from another student at CUNY, a coach in the system’s College and Career Bridge for All program. She offered to help guide me through the process of starting college. I ignored the email, focusing instead on the latest COVID guidance and wondering if it was safe to see friends. 

By August, though, I received word that my financial aid had been stopped. I was frantic and feared asking my family for help. We were all struggling amid the pandemic. I reached out to the CUNY coach and scheduled a Zoom. That conversation changed the course of my college career. 

I learned that there was a list of steps I had to take after being accepted to college, including enrolling in classes and making sure I completed an income verification process. The coach connected me with a CUNY adviser, who helped me pick classes, and told me who to call about getting my financial aid reinstated. She even told me how to use Rate My Professors so I could learn about different instructors before choosing their classes.

For some students, having a coach or student mentor makes the transition from high school to college not just easier but possible.

Without the bridge program, a joint program of CUNY and the New York City education department, I likely would have missed my first semester of college. In high school, I was used to people telling me what to do; in college, I had to do everything by myself with no reminders. For some students, having a coach or student mentor makes that transition from high school to college not just easier but possible. 

Two years after starting college, I’m on the path to becoming the first in my family to graduate from college, but I know how easy it is to fall off track, particularly for students from low-income families. COVID only made it harder.

In the fall of 2020, undergraduate enrollment nationwide was down 2.5% over the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The declines were steepest at community colleges. Low-income students are most likely to delay or leave college, making it harder for them to climb the economic ladder. The result is more inequity. 

That’s why I decided to become a College and Career Bridge coach this summer. It can be hard to navigate financial aid forms and enrollment. Many students don’t have family members who can help them. I want to make it easier for those students the same way my coach made starting college possible for me.

I’ve already connected with 20 students who plan on starting CUNY in the fall. When one student mistakenly told me that she didn’t qualify for the tuition assistance program, I pointed her toward the steps she needed to take to secure funding. That connection allowed her to continue her education uninterrupted. 

That student and I were among the lucky ones. But enrolling in college should not depend on luck. More high schools and colleges across the country need to create bridge programs so all students, particularly those from low-income families, have someone to help them navigate the transition to and through college. 

Kellyah Bernardez is a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.