"We as students get to tell our story" — at the Premiere of "Personal Statement"

by Lori Chajet, Co-Director, College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

I recently had the honor of attending the premiere of Personal Statement, a film by Julie Dressner and co-directed by Edwin Martinez that follows three high school seniors who were trained to support their peers through the college application process — while applying to college themselves. Listening to the film’s protagonists speak about the power of a youth-led model to address inequity in college access, I could not help but think about all of the youth organizers from the Urban Youth Collaborative. Since 2005, UYC has been fighting to develop and get funding for a youth-led college access model as a part of their College Pathways campaign. More than 13 years ago, those youth organizers explained their motivations:

We realized that, in many of our communities, students were being pushed into GED programs and into the military, rather than being helped to realize their dreams for college. We believe that every NYC high school student has the fundamental right to obtain the counseling and academic support necessary for him or her to succeed in high school and go to college.

They advocated for Student Success Centers*, which would train high school students to work in partnership with adult counselors to support students through the college search, application, and decision-making process. Their efforts resulted in funding for Make the Road NY to open New York City’s first Student Success Center on the Bushwick Campus in November 2007 and then for Cypress Hills LDC to open the second on the Franklin K. Lane Campus in January 2008. Personal Statement features these two Student Success Centers, alongside one of the many others that have been established since then in NYC. College Access: Research & Action (CARA) works with these Student Success Centers, providing 70+ hours of training for youth leaders to develop the knowledge and skills they need to do their work, and supporting their supervisors to establish needed structures and supports for effective programming.

Personal Statement shines a critical light on the complexity and challenges of the college process for low-income students, the gross inequity in available resources, and the power of young people to support their peers in realizing their college aspirations. The moderator of the opening night panel, Rick Cruz, Chief of Strategy and Innovation for Houston Public Schools, explained the universal importance of the film:

It speaks to an issue that is so critical – an issue about access, about opportunity that is too often ignored, and this is not an issue specific to NYC public schools. It is an issue that most districts in our country are facing… an issue with the college counseling gap… The kinds of issues you see in the film, they are so systemic.

He went on to explain that when he took over his post in Houston 28 of 45 high schools did not have a single college advisor and there were 1,800 students per guidance counselor.

When Cruz asked the panelists what they hoped would be the outcome of the film, Enoch  Jammott, a former Youth Leader at Brooklyn Generation High School and rising senior at Queens College said:

I think it is important for people to understand what kids and students are going through.  The college process – it already brings forth hardship and students today, they already have to deal with their personal life, sports, their extra-curriculars and things just seem to pile up – and with the college process you almost have little to no knowledge of what you need and what you need to know to get into college.

Edwin Martinez, Co-Editor of the film, said:

I hope that people watch a film like this and realize that they may have gotten the whole thing wrong – that people like Karoline and Enoch and Christine… need to be saved. I think they need help, and they need more support but I think they have a lot of the tools already and they have a lot of power and so I am hoping that adults can become allies to ask them how to fix things, rather than fix things for them.

And Karoline Jimenez, former Youth Leader at the Franklin K. Lane campus and Junior at SUNY New Paltz, said:

We as students get to tell our story, we don’t have teachers telling it, we don’t have the mayor telling it, its going to be from us and we want you to understand that it is something we have lived, that we have experienced, and this is why it is so important that we make a change because we don’t want it to keep happening. 

Cruz closed the panel by saying:

I hope this film is a call to action so everyone understands the severity of this issue and to take action and to get involved whether that is at the policy level, funding level, school districts, parents putting pressure... I wish I had more people calling my office and saying ‘hey we demand it, we need more of this’ because we would be able to fund more of these things if we had that kind of pressure.

That kind of pressure has led to rapid growth of this model in New York City. The New York City Department of Education recently funded the addition of five new Student Success Centers, raising the total number of schools in NYC that have this model to 40. Furthermore, CARA has extended this peer-to-peer model to train college students to work both in their alma-maters supporting seniors through the college process and on community college campuses supporting students through the obstacles to persistence. Each year over 300 CARA-trained Peer Leaders are reaching over 12,000 students. Slowly we are seeing New York City transform the support and opportunities being afforded to students – and those changes are happening with young people at the helm. As Karoline said, “A lot of good things happen when you believe in young people.” Our hope is that Personal Statement will catalyze the spread of this revolutionary model.

To view the panel from the premiere click here. To view a trailer for Personal Statement click here. To learn more about CARA’s model for peer-to-peer college access and persistence, click here.

*Student Success Centers started in Philadelphia public schools, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Student Union, as a youth-adult partnership model for college access support.

How to See the Film

If you are in or near New York City, on Saturday, October 20th at 7pm there will be a special screening at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. The stars of the film will be there! There is only one screening so make sure you don’t miss out by getting your tickets today. (Go here to buy tickets!)

PERSONAL STATEMENT will have its broadcast premiere on Tuesday, October 23rd at 8pm on PBS and WORLD. 

Please check our website for information about how to tune in, upcoming festival and special screenings, and recent news coverage. And once you have seen PERSONAL STATEMENT, please take our survey and let us know how you want to help close the college guidance gap.

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