the collegiate

One in 1.1 million: After homelessness, an Ivy League admission

Walid Rahman, a senior at Townsend Harris High School, was recently admitted to Columbia University. His family has struggled with poverty, illness, and homelessness.

Walid Rahman was homeless from the time he was four until he was 10. He moved from couch to couch as his family struggled to earn a living while caring for Walid’s terminally ill father.

But Walid, an 18 year-old senior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, refused to let any of that stop him. He is determined to find a cure to beat his father’s illness. The first step for him is getting out of poverty and getting into a top college. Even though there are over 70,000 high school seniors across the country this year who are like Walid — low-income and qualified to attend a top college — they make up only 3 percent of the population at elite colleges and universities.

The odds were stacked against him.

Hard Beginnings

Despite the Rahmans’ numerous hardships, the family considers their circumstances a blessing from God.

The Rahmans, originally from Bangladesh, feared for their lives during Walid’s childhood. A criminal blackmailed the family, leaving them the choice to give up their business and lose everything or have Walid kidnapped. For Mr. Rahman, the choice was obvious.

His family believed they could rebuild their lives in the United States. They entered the visa lottery and were chosen.

When the family arrived in America, they had nothing.

“Literally we lost everything and my parents’ education was worth nothing. They both had engineering degrees but to be engineers in the United States they would have to go back to school for years which we could never afford,” Walid said.

Mr. Rahman got a job as a busboy. But his severe beta-thalassemia, a rare blood disorder that almost always spells death by 25, made him unable to keep the job.

“I was in so much pain I knew I would die if I kept going. Just working for that one week meant I was bedridden for a month,” Mr. Rahman said.

Mr. Rahman is a medical miracle. He has outlived his prognosis by over 20 years. A devout Muslim, he attributes his success largely to his faith in God.

Mr. Rahman applied for Supplemental Security Income for Americans with disabilities but was denied. He looked healthy externally, but internally, he was on the verge of dying.

While appealing the decision, Mr. Rahman took up work as a taxicab driver, though he and his doctor knew the work was causing him severe bodily harm.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rahman was caring for a newborn, also unable to work.

The family has almost no income so they stayed with distant friends and moved from house to house for years. This meant Walid had to move from school to school. He struggled to keep up with his peers and the constant changes to his curriculum.

“I could never predict anything,” Walid said.

Despite all of these hardships, Walid is still devout in his faith. The family treats every experience and every struggle as a gift from God who is always watching over them. The family calls moving to America a miracle.

“My father told me, ‘miracles are everywhere, we just have to keep our eyes open for them,’” Walid said.

A New Purpose

As Walid watched his father grow more and more ill, nearly dying on a number of occasions, he became angry.

“It wasn’t fair that I had to go through all of this. I had to care for my family and watch my father struggle to survive. And I was only a teenager,” Walid stated.

He wanted to find a cure. He was determined.

Walid decided then that he wanted to become a hematologist and find a cure, or at least a better treatment, for thalassemia. He is rebuilding his dreams around his father.

To become a doctor, Walid knew he needed to attend a top university with excellent research opportunities and a strong alumni network. Getting to that next step became Walid’s life purpose.

But Walid had not always been a good student.

The lack of stability in his life coupled with the inconsistency in his schooling made learning quite difficult. At one school he was the top of his class but at the next school he felt as if he was years behind. Walid nearly failed the second grade.

Mrs. Rahman spent the entire summer after second grade drilling Walid, trying to help him catch up. But still, Walid often felt like an academic failure.

“In seventh grade I had the meanest teacher in the world. She would ask me so many questions it was almost like harassment. I got so angry that I just started answering the questions. Answering all of them correctly. That’s when things changed,” Walid said.

He started working hard and emerged at the top of his class but knew that if he wanted to be admitted to a good high school, he was going to have to study hard. He prepared for months on his own for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, an exam that students from all five boroughs of New York take to qualify them for the most selective high schools. But unlike many of his peers, he couldn’t afford the pricey preparation programs.

He came up just shy of qualifying for Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, his first two choices and arguably two of the best high schools in the nation. He was devastated when he was denied.

“I was so disappointed. I felt like I had failed. But I refused to let failure stop me,” Walid said.

He ultimately decided to attend Townsend Harris High School, a magnet school attached to Queens College in Flushing.

Walid was excited by the rigorous curriculum at Townsend Harris.

His school teachers advised him to consider engineering as a track as it looked very appealing to medical schools. He joined his school’s FIRST Robotics team and dove into engineering with passion.

“I had role models in FIRST. I wanted to strive to be like them. But to be like them I needed good connections and a fantastic education with lots of research opportunities,” Walid said. He knew he needed to attend a top college. But getting to a selective school isn’t easy, especially for those who don’t have many resources.

In his sophomore year, Walid scored 180 out of 240 points on his PSAT, above the 90th percentile. But Walid was dissatisfied with his score. “I would not settle. I refused to settle for another 180.”

Walid studied on his own all summer before his junior year. He didn’t take any classes or hire any tutors. They were far too expensive for his family. Instead Walid checked a workbook out of the library and took practice test after practice test.

He got back his PSAT score junior year. 213. The 99th percentile.

“Two-thirteen was good, but not nearly good enough.”

He studied more than eight hours a week for several months before taking his SAT. Over the winter break, he studied nearly four hours a day.

“The moment I woke up on the day my test scores came back, a sense of foreboding swept over me. I read my prayers, told my mom to leave the room, and clicked on the link to see my scores. I literally said, ‘Oh my God!’ and then called my mom in. I got a 2310, above the 99th percentile,” Walid said.

Despite being excited, he never let himself get too comfortable.

“Even after my high SAT score, I decided not to get filled with hubris. I knew that a good essay could mean everything,” Walid said. He had a B-minus in his Spanish class which he was sure spelled rejection to any top college. The essay was the only way he could compensate for the lackluster grade.

In the summer before his senior year, Walid committed himself to starting his college essays. He found a group of students on the internet who were just like him, extremely talented but very low-income. They bounced ideas off each other trying to figure out how to best convey who they were.

But, he struggled with actually writing his ideas down on paper. He waited for the perfect moment.

“The moment happened to be 3 a.m. I was listening to Chopin in E Flat Major and was thinking about my past. I was eating a mango for Sehri, which is the time period in which we eat right before fasting during Ramadan. I may be a pauper now, but I used to be a prince and will one day become a king. I will rise against adversity and rule my own future.”

Walid wants to develop technologies to cure thalessemia and bring them back to Bangladesh where the poor never get health care. He will not let families like his be defined by their financial circumstances.

During his junior year, Walid heard about the QuestBridge National College Match program. QuestBridge is an organization that helps low-income students from across the world secure full scholarships at the nation’s most elite colleges like Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. The scholarship is highly selective and more difficult than securing admissions to these prestigious institutions.

In September, Walid was named a finalist for the National College Match. Finalists are able to apply to colleges through QuestBridge, giving them the change to secure the full scholarships to the most prestigious colleges in the world.

“I jumped, screamed and hugged my father. I was extremely overjoyed. But I knew this wasn’t the end. I was only halfway there. There were 4500 people named Finalist, and most likely less than 400 students would be matched,” Walid remembered.

Walid spent months crafting his application, trying to demonstrate who he was as a person to each college.

“I had to be introspective. I had to realize myself. The essays and supplements, there were a lot of them, but I always somehow knew how to answer them after good thinking. It felt like a game of chess,” Walid said.

The Waiting Game

He was so excited to be finished with his applications, but knew he had to stay level headed. He knew that what he had done had the power to determine his next four years.

“Some people who knew me well believed in me. Others wanted me to fail. But I didn’t let any of that get to me. I knew that whatever was going to happen, I would do anything to find a cure for my dad’s disease. College was just a way of getting there,” Walid said.

He knew he would end up somewhere. And even if he failed, he knew he would find a way to get where he needed to go.

When November 30th rolled around, Walid knew in his heart that he would hear good news. “I had the best feeling in my stomach. The feeling I would have right before a science competition. And whenever I had this feeling, I would win,” Walid said.

“Before I left home, I touched my parents’ feet for their blessings,” Walid explained. In Islam, touching an elder’s feet is the ultimate sign of respect and deference.

He would hear back that evening.

On his way home from school he was nearly attacked on the bus by a gang of students from a nearby high school. But, the excitement of hearing back from colleges meant he wasn’t even very afraid. Walid managed to convince them they had the wrong kid.

When he got home, he immediately logged into his QuestBridge account. “I closed my eyes and knew this was both the end and the beginning.”

He clicked it.

“Congratulations…”

Walid was admitted to his first choice college, Columbia University, via the National College Match Scholarship.

“Getting into Columbia is the realization of a four-year dream,” he said. “It’s the success of a cab driver who can no longer work. It’s the manifestations of the blessings my dying grandparents gave to me in their final moments. But more importantly, it’s the start of a new adventure and the road to something unfulfilled: finding a cure.”

But the Rahman family knows that not everyone like Walid is so lucky.

Mr. Rahman humbly said, “Our lives have been a series of miracles. We are extremely fortunate people.”

Looking Forward

Several weeks ago Mr. Rahman was admitted the hospital again. His prognosis does not look good, but then again it never has.

Walid said, “My father [landing in the hospital] wasn’t unexpected, he’s been miraculously alive for almost 25 years, but I have to stay strong. I will always be there for my mother and brother.”

Despite the fear that encapsulates this family every day, Walid lets trying events like this motivate him to achieve his goals.

“Every time my father gets sick, it reminds me of how important it is for me to find a cure. I will do it for my family,” Walid said.

Hope Brinn is a student at Swarthmore College. This piece originally appeared on The Collegiate Blog.

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.