On Being a Youth Leader and a Friend

Alexus Bright
College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

I was in the college office helping students to complete their college applications, when my friend Michael, whom I’ve known since freshman year of high school, walked in with a bright yellow shirt. As a Youth Leader, I was designated to help my peers with the vigorous task of completing the college application process and to get them on the road to figuring out their post-secondary options. With Michael, I knew I wasn’t just going to be helping another peer, but I would be helping a friend.

Back in 9th grade, I used to idolize Michael for his intelligence and character. I remember how he came to class every day with a jolt about him that made his personality awesome, willing to do anything to better himself and his own future. Michael was not like the “normal” students in school; he loved school and everything about it. At the same time, schoolwork never stopped him from showing others his energetic and comedic personality. Michael came from a strict religious background, and his family expected him to start his own family, putting school on the backburner. But Michael never wanted that to stop him from doing his best to improve his future, and he disregarded his family’s plans and comments.

Years ago, in English class, it was poetry month and each student created a poem about something dear to them. I could still visualize Michael’s poem, a poem that was not meant to become a deep emotional piece, but became that anyway. His poem expressed his deep and heartfelt wish to graduate from high school and go to Syracuse University for college, despite his parents’ plans for his future. It was at this point when he shared his poem that my close and deep friendship with Michael began. Standing in the college office now, I faced Michael again, as a youth leader trying to help a close friend who was now lost within the darkness.

I knew how much potential Michael had and the passion he once had for a bright future. But now in his senior year, Michael was no longer that energetic, positive person that I was once really close with. When I looked at him, I noticed that the spark that he once had about his future and college had died out and turned into complete and utter darkness. I wanted there to be a bit of hope left out there for him, if I just sat down and talked to him on a deeper level. Just imagine a bright summer day with a light breeze, seemingly pictured as a perfect day, now picture that day being taken over by a dark and gloomy cloud completely destroying any possibility of happiness and hope. Knowing who he once was and now seeing a person who was completely disconnected with school and his future, I made it my own obligation to help my close friend get back on track with the future he once desired.

As a Youth Leader, and as a friend, I began the long mission of helping Michael understand the college application process and help get him on track with planning his post-secondary options. Being so close to Michael freshman year, I felt obligated to help him because I did not want to see a close friend that always wanted to go to college as his way for a better future, just quit and give up on all plans and do absolutely nothing. While I often needed to put my personal feelings aside when I worked as a Youth Leader to support my peers, and I tried my best to help my peers in a professional way, I knew it had to be different with Michael. I believed that in order to fully get through to Michael, I needed to be a friend as well as a professional because that was the only way to get him to open up and fully understand his situation. It was uncomfortable to watch a person with so much drive just shut down. I wanted to use the knowledge I had as a Youth Leader to help him out and to guide him down the right path. He soon became my highest priority as a Youth Leader, despite having other students in my caseload.

The first day I worked together with Michael, I asked him the question that was stuck in the back of my mind: Was it your parents and the background you come from that made it complicated over the years that has stopped you from going to college? It took a few days of probing and talking to him for him to finally break down for me what was going on. Michael told me, “ I always thought that I could be like the others, that when this time came around, my parents would be ecstatic to know that I was making this big step in my life to enhance my family’s future.” I reminded him of that poem that he had written in English class years back and how much that poem had created such an impact on his life. I told him, “Although your parents are a huge influence on your life, you cannot let that stop you from being who you are and going off to college to pursue the dream that you have desired for such a long time. I am here as a Youth Leader to help you with creating a college list and breaking down all of the steps you’ll need in the college application process.”

It took two months of working with him one-on-one. I helped him identify his safety, target and reach schools. Michael became discouraged seeing that there were a lot of schools, like his dream school, Syracuse University, that were reaches for him. His grades were not on the good side, so we focused on selecting schools that were likely to accept him. I told him, “Although your grades are low this will not stop you from choosing schools. There is a college out there for you, we just need to search and look for it.” Throughout creating the college list with him, he told me that he wanted to pursue a career in engineering. I kept that in mind and made sure that almost every school on his list offered engineering as a major. After we had Michael’s college list, he started to show the energetic side of his personality that I once knew, so we started to work on his applications.

In the end, Michael completed both the FAFSA and the TAP (New York State financial aid). He applied to sixteen schools and was accepted to twelve. Although Michael did not get into his dream school, he decided to go to the Borough of Manhattan Community College for a year and planned to transfer to the City College Of New York School of Engineering. As I finished off my work with Michael, I began to finally see the person I had become so close with over the course of four years. My ultimate mission of getting Michael to this place on a path to his future was completed, and I fulfilled my obligation both as a Youth Leader and as a friend.