I’m in college because my high school offered many opportunities — including to learn how to ask for help

For all the talk about whether college is worth its potentially crushing costs, graduating from college remains one of the only vehicles that reliably propels Americans out of poverty. Yet just half of low-income college students earn degrees in six years. For students from struggling cities, the odds are even steeper. Are they ready for college? And are colleges ready to help them graduate? An ongoing series from Detroit and Newark in the 2019-20 school year examines those questions.

A year ago, I was waiting to find out whether I would get into my first-choice college. Now, I am finishing my first semester there and getting ready to head home to Brooklyn for winter break.

Everybody’s journey is going to be different, but the main advice I have for all the seniors going through their college application process this year is to take full advantage of all the help available both within and outside your school to prove to your family and friends that you are taking opportunities seriously.

As the first member of my family to attend college, I had an amazing journey from my birthplace in Colombia to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by way of Brooklyn public schools. I worked hard every step of the way and ended up at my first-choice college this fall because so many other people supported and motivated me.

When I was 6 years old, my parents immigrated here, toiling at cleaning jobs to build a better life for me and my two older brothers. My father, who is retired now, told me how he hoped I would go to college because he never had the chance to pursue his dream of a career in medicine. But I started third grade at a new school in East New York speaking hardly any English, even though I had already been in the country for some time. There, I had teachers who excited me about learning and helped me become more and more comfortable with the language.

I chose to travel to Brooklyn Preparatory High School starting in ninth grade because representatives of the school had come to my middle school and said they would help students get to college. So I applied to the school even though it was an hour from home, in Williamsburg.

When I got there, I found many programs in place to help students become prepared for and apply to college. I took advantage of the wide array of Advanced Placement courses, studying Spanish, U.S. history, European history, calculus, chemistry, and environmental science. In my first semester taking AP courses as a sophomore, I also took a class just about the study skills I would need to succeed.

My school also offered free SAT prep and helped me find out about a program called SEO, which offered additional Saturday and summer sessions on the SAT from Princeton Review teachers. I ended up taking the SAT three times and kept improving my scores.

Events held at my school during Career Exploration month helped me learn about different professions and shaped my thinking about what I wanted to study after high school. I got excited about studying business.

And Brooklyn Prep’s director of college counseling, Briana Avery, helped me navigate all of the stressful forms and deadlines that were part of applying for college. That included applying for financial aid — which I needed a lot of — and writing my personal essay. I also went on tours of both CUNY and SUNY campuses, and another program paid for me to travel to campuses outside of New York City.

That was how I found out about Lehigh, where I was impressed right away by everyone who made me feel so welcome. That sense of caring combined with the school’s academic rigor and being only a two-hour drive away from my family in Brownsville made Lehigh my first choice, and I applied early decision on Ms. Avery’s recommendation.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of the resources I experienced were new because of New York City’s recent initiative to get more students to college. At least some of the AP courses I took were added because of the AP for All program. The free SAT prep I received was also new, as was my ability to take the test during the school day. Ms. Avery was part of a program called Collegebound Initiative that more schools are joining with College Access for All funding. Even the career exploration program was part of a citywide initiative.

At my school, there were some kids who didn’t seem to care about going to college, but at least in my grade, it felt like lots of students did. As the years went on, it felt like my classmates were becoming role models for the younger students in our high school. That seems to be the trend in New York City: Last week, the city announced that more students than ever are graduating and going to college.

Getting to college is a major accomplishment, but I know that getting through the next four years will be another challenge. My adjustment hasn’t been easy. The courses are definitely challenging and Bethlehem is a lot calmer than the fast-paced hustle and bustle I’m used to in Brooklyn.

But my best friend from high school also enrolled here, and Lehigh does a good job of supporting students like me who are the first in their family to attend college. In fact, a program I joined just for first-generation and low-income students, LUSSI, has already protected me from setbacks. I was struggling in calculus and physics, and the program director helped me realize that I wasn’t as passionate about engineering, one of the subjects I set out to study, as I thought. Now I’m studying finance. If I hadn’t been part of the program, I might have been stuck.

Ms. Avery is pretty focused on this year’s seniors at Brooklyn Prep, but I spoke to her a little while after the school year started when she called to check in on how I’m doing. It’s because of her and my high school that I am in college now — and because of them that I know how to take advantage of the resources around me when I need help.

Josue Quintero graduated from Brooklyn Preparatory High School in 2019. 

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.