Class of 2016

‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it’: How two young women took on real life before graduating high school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan (left) and Dorothy Slater (right) immediately before graduation.

Across most of her high school career, Leigh Duignan made steady progress toward college. She worked to improve her grades, took on a nearly full-time job at a local ice cream shop to start saving for tuition, and joined a computer programming club.

But in her senior year at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan, those plans threatened to unravel. Her dad had a heart attack, and other problems arose that left her without much support at home.

“This year was probably the hardest year of my whole high school career,” Duignan said. “All of these bad things just all happened at once and I really, really wanted to quit.”

Still, last Friday, donning a white graduation gown and a grin, Duignan joined about 100 of her classmates in a celebratory march through Midtown and into the auditorium of New World Stages on 50th Street, where her parents looked on while she officially graduated from high school.

Duignan, 18, is headed to SUNY Polytechnic Institute this fall, and even though her tuition will be covered by a state scholarship, she scraped together over $2,000 working at Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Queens – often staying until midnight or later.

“Financially, things weren’t really great this year. I’d be so tired [after work], but it’d be worth it,” she thought.

Duignan wasn’t the only student at UA Gateway who took on adult responsibilities to help propel herself to graduation. Her classmate, Dorothy Slater, 19, also worked nearly full-time this past year at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown to help pay for groceries and to have her own spending money since her mother has a disability and does not work.

Slater even earned enough money to file taxes, which she completed herself with some help from an Urban Assembly staff member.

“I just learned how to deal with it,” she said, regarding the extra responsibilities. “I was just like, ‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it.’”

Slater plans to attend SUNY Plattsburgh starting this summer as part of its Educational Opportunity Program, which helps motivated yet disadvantaged students who don’t meet traditional admissions requirements gain entry to SUNY colleges, and offers additional academic support.

The school’s administrators note that while many students overcome challenges, Slater and Duignan are unusual in the adult roles they’ve taken on without losing sight of school.

“They’ve taken advantage of all of the resources available to them,” said Alex Rigney, the school’s director of college counseling. “These guys have put in as much time as any students here.”

In addition to work and school, Duignan joined the after-school club Girls Who Code as a way of exploring her interest in programming outside of male-dominated spaces (roughly 80 percent of students at UA Gateway are men). Slater took on internships that let her explore her interest in graphic design – and both young women participated in College Now, which let them take community college classes while enrolled in high school.

“She’s usually the last one here when I’m locking up at 6 o’clock,” Rigney said of Duignan, noting that she often sticks around to get homework done before leaving for work. “Frankly, I don’t know how she balanced it all.”

Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Leigh Duignan walks to graduation with classmates from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology.

School hasn’t always come easily to Duignan. Due to a learning difference, she didn’t master reading until the sixth grade, and has been supported by a learning plan geared for students with disabilities. “I used to look at a book and think, ‘I could never read that,’” she said.

Duignan attributes her high school success partly to extra counseling she got through her individual learning plan, staff members in whom she felt comfortable confiding, and her mentor from the Big Sisters program, who boosted her confidence.

On Friday, the school gave her one last push. In the middle of the graduation ceremony, the school awarded Duignan an extra $5,000 scholarship – the top prize offered this year.

“I’m just in complete awe,” she said moments later, surrounded by her family.

It’s not an entirely easy transition. Slater teared up when asked about the prospect of traveling across the state for college, and leaving her mother behind. “I lived in the city for my whole entire life. It’s an adjustment.”

And while Duignan is looking forward to moving away for school, and escaping the challenges associated with her family life, she still wonders whether she’s completely prepared for college.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

A Whole New World

Strict rules, Snapchat, and eerie quiet: A first-generation college student adjusts to life on campus

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Daviary Rodriguez, a freshman at the University at Albany.

Daviary Rodriguez, who goes by Davi, sat in the back of his calculus class at the University at Albany on a recent afternoon, taking notes as his professor sprawled math equations across the board.

When she told the class to work on problems, Davi, 18, grinned he had already finished a couple questions while she was talking.

“I think it’s pretty easy,” he said, smiling.

As a freshman at the university, which is part of the State University of New York system, Davi is confident, excited about his newfound independence, and enjoying his classes. Still, as a first-generation college student from a working-class family in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City, Davi will have defied the odds if he makes it to graduation.

In New York City, officials have pushed to get more students like Davi to enroll in college and it seems to be working. But a major hurdle remains: helping students persist once they get there. Less than 30 percent of students from average-income neighborhoods in the city graduate college in six years, and that number drops to 16 percent for those from the poorest neighborhoods, according to a recent NYU study.

With that grim statistic in mind, nonprofits, colleges, and even high schools are working to help students get to and through college. Davi is relying on several such programs to help push him across the graduation finish line.

With Thanksgiving days away and finals around the corner, we spoke with Davi recently about the highs and lows of his first semester in college.

Davi during his calculus class at the University at Albany.

A summer of strict rules and study hours

Davi got an early start on college — five weeks early, to be exact.

This summer, he took part in an intensive college-prep course through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a 50-year-old program that provides academic and financial support to students from low-income families at public colleges across New York.

While his middle-class peers spent the waning days of summer bidding farewell to old friends, Davi was sitting through hours-long orientation lectures and silent study hours each night. In fact, the popular program — which enrolls motivated students who don’t meet SUNY’s typical admissions requirements — enforces a dress code during the summer orientation, bans cell phones outside of residence halls, and forbids participants from interacting with students who aren’t in the program, according to program rules obtained by the campus newspaper.

Maritza Martinez, the university’s Educational Opportunity Program director, said the strict rules are necessary to cram the basics of college life and academics into a brief summer course.

“We don’t have the luxury of not having a structured program,” she said. While low-income students typically are less likely to graduate than their peers, Martinez noted that the graduation rate among EOP participants is actually higher than the university’s overall rate.

During the summer crash course and throughout the school year, the program helps students develop study habits, apply for financial aid, and tend to their mental health. Davi was required to clock eight hours of library time each week, meet with counselors, and write an essay about stress management.

In addition to the academic guidance and money to help cover non-tuition expenses like textbooks and supplies, the program also provides a support network of peers from similar backgrounds. Davi, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Upper Manhattan, said it’s reassuring to be surrounded by students who can relate to one another.

“The thought of college kind of scared me because I thought I was going to be surrounded by white people,” he said. “But that’s not the case now.”

A high school teacher who’s only a text away

When Davi’s group took a trip to the mall this summer, and later when a fellow participant was booted from the program, Davi shared the news via text message and Snapchat with a trusted confidant — his high school English teacher.

“The way I see my role is just to hear them out,” said Valerie Hennessy, who taught at Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan. “They vent or tell me what they’re going through.”

Davi and Hennessy have kept in touch through a program at OneGoal, a national nonprofit focused on college readiness. (Hennessy now works for OneGoal coaching other teachers.) The program trains high school teachers to have frank conversations with students about picking and attending colleges, and then helps them stay connected with their former students through their first year of college to help troubleshoot problems.

It’s a response to statistics showing that a large proportion of low-income students don’t make it beyond the start of college, said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City.

“In the first year of college, many, many students drop out for a variety of what we were argue are preventable reasons,” she said.

Davi said more high school teachers should keep in touch with students who are transitioning to college, since their former teachers can be a calming influence.

“College is a big place and not everybody can get help there,” he said. Students “should get help from the people they know more, from high school.”

An expensive investment

Even before stepping on campus, college was foreign territory for Davi.

Like many other first-generation college students, he relied largely on his high school to help him figure out where and how to apply. His parents supported his decision, but had scant advice to offer since they hadn’t gone through the process themselves.

“They didn’t really have input on what college I should have gone to,” Davi said. “My dad said that’s my own choice.”

Once he was accepted to college, the next hurdle was paying for it.

Though state and federal grants cover his tuition expenses, Davi still expects to rack up about $30,000 in debt, mainly to cover the cost of housing. (Like most low-income students, he did not qualify for the state’s new “Excelsior” scholarship, which targeted middle-income families.)

Kristin Black, a research fellow at New York University, noted that the high-school graduation rate for New York City students who are low-income, black or Hispanic is starting to get closer to that of their white, Asian, and higher-income peers. But the graduation gap widens when those students reach college.

Difficulty affording college tuition and all the expenses that come with it could be part of the problem, along with being unprepared for college-level work, said Black, who wrote a report on the graduation gaps but did not investigate the causes.

“The number of black and Latino students graduating from high school and all of that is great,” she said. “But we don’t necessarily see them maintaining those gains as they go through college.”

Getting used to the quiet

As his first semester winds down, Davi is slowly adjusting to college life.

He loves the free time between class, participating in the school’s marching band, and playing piano in the college’s rehearsal rooms.

But he’s still getting used to other aspects of campus — in particular, its location in a sleepy upstate city that feels nothing like the bustling metropolis where he grew up.

“I’ve been out in the night with friends and it’s really quiet, it’s really dark out,” he said. “When I’m in the city, hanging around, I see people, there’s lights everywhere, Times Square. For me, it’s just normal…But here, it’s just quiet.”

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”