I never believed I would go to college. As a low-income, first-generation, student of color, college was never encouraged, let alone realistic. Suddenly, I was accepted to the University of Chicago as a QuestBridge scholar. I felt like I beat my identity but after my first year finished, I realized my identity is what shaped my experience.
For the most part, I felt the multilayered disparities endured by disadvantaged students nationwide. But, I still found pockets of a normal and exciting college experience amidst that chaos.
I want to be accessible for the students that are preceding a similar path as I was. Though I am not without current struggles, I am still among one of the most fortunate cases of the college process. I had access to mentors and networks that helped me see past the enchantment of being a “success story.” I committed to deep self-work as my rebellion. I dared to lose the advancements I made for experiences that helped me gain paradigm-shattering insights into how the college process is a model built against most disadvantaged students. These privileges are not equally available, distributed, or even encouraged. The opposite is regularly enabled. That is why I created a student-led higher education advocacy platform to make more resources available for students who look like me.
@youssefuniversity is my digital platform across social media where I am the one-to-shop for everything college-related. I have founded two scholarships in collaboration with brands that invest in the success of students. I produce content that outlines all I have learned through the college application process from my numerous case studies, community-based organizations, and research I have participated in. Thousands of students have received at least a little clarity and opportunities that I hope they’ll be all the better for. In reality, I started with the hope of reaching one student at a time. Now I have a community- my Youssef University.
Here are the most three important takeaways from my first year at an elite institution and what I got out of them. I’m hopeful that the lessons I learned may help empower disadvantaged students already in college and prospective students about to enter.
1. There is power in individuality.
Support in higher education is distributed a lot differently than I’ve experienced. No one checks in with you or hunts you down for assignments. Your success is highly correlated to your ability to ask for help. My number one takeaway from this is- if no one else is going to help you then do not care about what they think. Ask those follow-ups during class, go to office hours, and have a tutor. UChicago did not only offer tutors but they offered tutors who were also first-generation and low-income. I felt seen and these resources were all free. Most students at elite institutions have been receiving help their whole lives. Don’t let those same people’s perceptions stop you from doing the same.
2. Sacrifices will have to be made.
It’s inevitable as a disadvantaged student that you’ll need to make some sacrifices. College includes lifestyle so it’s important to note that not everyone will have the same lifestyle. Elite institutions do not prepare disadvantaged students for the difficulties of managing their finances and deliberating their time effectively. Figure out your priorities in terms of money, and then allocate where you are willing to sacrifice certain lifestyle choices. I realized I was sacrificing any additional funding I had to visit home or for a rainy day to fit in with my peers and go out. One weekend, I spent $150 two days in a row and had severe anxiety over it. Financial burden is real, economic disparities are real; it took me forever to start making the right call. Sacrifices are necessary, the question is which ones are most important. Some sacrifices may even include physical and mental health. The earlier we’re aware, the sooner we can put our health first.
3. Be bold before someone else is.
I’ve spent so much time waiting for someone else “to give me a shot”. Not realizing, I can create opportunities for myself. Since building my platform, I have founded two scholarships- the “Your Success” Youssef Scholarship and the “Youssef Hasweh x SportsHi Scholarship”. I spent a lot of time uplifting the successes over others or so I thought. However, once I centered myself on my path to success it paid off exponentially in helping others more effectively. Now, I am not only a national scholarship recipient but a national scholarship provider at 19 years old. Be the first bold person in the room. This has been the biggest lesson on self-development for me.
By highlighting my story as any form of exception to the rule, we misunderstand my peers’ experiences, and we shift attention away from the support needed immediately. Disadvantaged students should never have to feel like they broke the status quo by finding success for themselves. Career centers and identity-based offices at these “elite” institutions need to elevate students by helping them find their own success. It took me a very long time to realize personal success was tangible. The purpose of Youssef University is to do what accredited universities won’t do—inspire.
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