How I Became the First Person in My Family to Go to College

Arnesia Banks, a senior at Gary Comer College Prep, on how she beat the odds.

Last week, the principal of Chicago's Gary Comer College Prep wrote about how 100 percent of the school's seniors have been accepted to four-year universities. Now it's the students' turn to share their stories.

No one expects a girl like me to go to college. I'm black and from the Grand Crossing community on the south side of Chicago. The vast majority of the people in my neighborhood aren't college educated. Every day when I walk to and from school, I worry about my safety as I hear police sirens or see teenage boys on the corner hustling for money. No one else in my family has gone to college and my dad has been in prison most of my life. I worry about my brother because of his involvement with gangs. But this fall I'll defy the odds when I write "Arnesia Banks" at the top of my first paper as a freshman at Boston College.

Today, I'm a senior at Gary Comer College Prep. If you'd known me as a freshman, you wouldn't have thought my acceptance at Boston College four years later would be possible. I was academically behind and I was used to misbehaving in school—I thought it was no big deal to run the halls, not go to class, talk back to my teachers, and skip school. I did these things because at my grammar school I knew there was no real consequence for my actions. The first time I skipped school at GCCP, I had to meet with the dean of discipline and several teachers who had come to show they cared about me. They laid out my options: get three days of suspension or three days of detention. I had been suspended and gone to detention in grammar school—I knew that suspension was "easier" because I wouldn't have to do school work. In the end, at what proved to be a crossroads for me, I took the detention.

Seeing that so many people cared about me was pivotal in my decision to change my behavior. I wanted to take responsibility for my actions and prove to the dean, my teachers, and myself that I was not a stereotypical, unmotivated black teenager. I wanted to show them I was intelligent, persevering, and hardworking. I never skipped school again.

I received all As my sophomore year, and because I wanted to be a better leader for my school and community, I decided to run for student council president—and I won! I was in a leadership position for the first time, but I really didn’t know much about being a leader, let alone president. In the summer before my junior year, my school selected me to participate in the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership program to build my leadership skills. At the program, I learned that being a leader means giving others power and teaching them how to be a leader themselves. Now, two years later, I am leading a National Honor Society initiative to promote peer-to-peer tutoring, and because of my interest in leadership and politics, I’ve met with my local city councilwoman to discuss the role of women in politics.

When I started applying to college, I was scared. My school took away some of that anxiety because of how many structures and people are in place to help students get into college. One of the supports provided to seniors is a class called Senior College Scholars. The class is designed to assist us in applying to college and scholarships, and educate us about financial aid and college life. In addition, I had teachers—like my math teacher Ms. Landon, a Boston College alumna—help me.

When I received my acceptance letter from BC, I was both extremely exuberant and overwhelmingly appreciative. But my mother cries every time she thinks about me leaving, and she worries about me going to college and dropping out. I assure her, however, that although I will be 1,000 miles away from home, I am leaving to do great things, and eventually I’ll come back to take care of her just like she has taken care of me. Also, I am not only going to college, I am going to graduate from college.

I recently met a girl at my school that reminds me of who I was four years ago. Before I graduate, I plan to tell her my story. I’ll tell her that I have been in her shoes and I know that disruptive behavior and not being focused on school does not lead to positive things. I hope I can be that spark in her life to turn things around as my teachers were in mine.

I am excited to go to Boston College, major in political science, and reach my long-term goal of being a leader who speaks up and changes policy to further justice. I wonder if the person who made the final decision accepting me understood how much going to college will change my life. This is the next step in achieving my dreams, and I hope that sharing my story inspires other students to do the same.

Photo via Gary Comer College Prep

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