Torn Between Family and a Youth Leader

Michel Gomes
College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

“No, I have my mind set. My answer is still the same as before: I don’t want to apply for college, neither do I wish to go.” She had made it final and I just kept staring at my friend like I was talking to an alien.

My friend, Tania Rahim is a Pakistani girl, very smart, intelligent, respectful, and all the magnificent adjectives I could use for her. A student with high grades, a bright future, ambitions, and the potential to win the world. No one ever gets tired of praising her. Parents use her as an example during PTA meetings and tell their child, “Why can’t you be like her?” Students are jealous of her, and some even say to her, “I envy you.” Tania is the first person to answer the teacher’s questions in every class. Before a test, you’ll find Tania chatting with her books while everyone else is chatting on Facebook. A nerd is what you call her!

So, what happens when a student like Tania wants to put an end to her future? How would you feel as a teacher? How would you feel as her friend?

This is exactly how I felt. Everyone knew that Tania would do something extraordinary and make the best future ever. But Tania’s denial came like a thunderbolt to everyone. Teachers asked her why she made that decision, but she refused to explain why. I was asked by the teachers to talk to her, in the hopes that I might change her mind because they knew I was her good friend, and most importantly, a Youth Leader.

Youth Leaders are tasked with the responsibility to help our peers with college planning, including college awareness, college options, how to apply to a college and financial aid. As a Youth Leader, I was overcome with disappointment when I heard that Tania didn’t want to apply to college. I knew she had at some point dreamt of becoming a teacher. What made her change her mind?
“What happened to those dreams that you had? Where did the Tania, who wanted to become a teacher, go?” I asked her solemnly.

“Dreams and reality are very different.” She replied harshly.
Putting my hands on her shoulders, I asked her calmly, “What is it Tania? Why don’t you want to apply to college?”

As tears rolled down on her cheeks, she said, “My parents want me to get married right after I graduate from high school, and I am already engaged now.”

“What are you talking about? But you didn’t even graduate from school yet?” I blurted out loud.

It was a shock but I remembered that Tania’s situation was a difficult one. Girls like Tania and I come from countries where it is typical for girls to marry by the age of 18. Most girls are not even allowed to go to school and get educated. We are lucky that our parents let us go to school. From a daughter’s position, I knew I would have to agree with my parents and do what they wanted me to do like a decent daughter, if I were Tania. But as a Youth Leader, my job was not only to help Tania apply to colleges but also to help her make the right decision.

I suddenly realized I needed to stay calm and patient in order to understand and help Tania. That’s why we are called “Youth Leaders” because we understand each other’s experiences as teenagers, and we want a safe space for students to share their questions. Acknowledging her situation, I told her, “There are many students who are married and still go to college. Not only married students but also pregnant students go to college.” I told her about different post-secondary options, and thought that she would change her mind after listening to my advice. Yet her answer was still, “No.”
“What is it Tania? I guess marriage is not the only thing that is bothering you. Please tell everything. I am here to help you.”

Hesitantly, she replied, “My parents don’t want me to go to college because they cannot afford the expenses.” She started crying and hugged me very tight.
Now that I knew her actual problem, I told her that there are many students who don’t apply to college because they cannot afford the expenses. I showed her how to apply for financial aid through FAFSA. I saw Tania’s face change, as she realized there could be hope for her to go to college after all. With a smile, she said she would talk to her parents again and show them the financial aid options available to her.

The next day, Tania came to me and said, “I changed my mind, Michel.” She was jumping around.
“You are going to apply for college?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yes, I am applying!” She burst out loud, laughing and jumping.

“Are you serious? Please say that you are not lying, please!” I was jumping with her and shouting.
Tania is one of thousands of other students in similar situations. Many students are unaware of what to do, how to apply for financial aid, where to get help, or even where to start. To help those students, schools should provide students with more support in the college planning process, such as workshops that build early awareness, and training Youth Leaders to reach out to every student in the school. If Tania had known earlier what her options were, she might have had less to worry about.