Ashley started exalt’s program in February 2011 at the age of 16. She was a sophomore at Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, though she lives in Staten Island. She had a case in the juvenile system that was lingering. Although very smart, she was recalcitrant, agitated, closed. She hated speaking to people. These attributes made it difficult for folks to see the real Ashley.
Ashley was clear from the moment she entered our space that she wanted to be a pediatrician. We placed her in an internship at Health Corps, a nonprofit started by the celebrity Dr. Oz, dedicated to educating children about health. She graduated exalt in the summer of 2011.
Ashley kept in sporadic contact with exalt over the next year. Then, in September 2012, she came to us to ask for help. She had accumulated hundreds of community service hours required by her school for graduation. She asked if she could complete them by volunteering in our office. Little did we realize a year ago, what a profound impact this girl would have on each and every one of us, and that we would be sitting with her on Monday shedding tears as we shared a farewell lunch with her before she leaves tomorrow for college at the University of New Haven.
Over this past year, we got to experience, not just witness, Ashley blossom. The recalcitrance she exhibited at 16 was a guarded determination that led her to be the first in her family to graduate high school, let alone go to a college – and a four-year college out of state, at that. The grim face she often wore at 16 masked lots of layers of emotions: fear, distrust, uncertainty (and again, determination). Once she found a place that she could put roots in, with people she trusted there to help her develop, those emotions made way for the courage, strength, thoughtfulness, charisma, joy she always had, to emerge to the surface.
During the past school year Ashley decided she wanted to go to the University of New Haven. It was her first choice college. Her decisions are made with an inspiring amount of independence and optimism. So many kids in New York who are the trailblazers of their families – and entire communities – by making it to college, want to stay close to home. Ashley sets her sights high. She loves her family and is torn about leaving, but knows that for her, the right decision is to explore more, to keep pushing her independence to get to her goals.
During the 12th grade, Ashley navigated everything that she was the first to do in her family, by herself: college applications, financial aid, more financial aid, scholarship applications, pursuing an advanced Regents high school diploma, joining clubs, going out of state on school trips, advocating for exalt to give her a second internship this summer at Brooklyn Birthing Center (which she did exceptionally well in). She connected herself to friends who also had high aspirations. This fall, her two closest friends from the past couple years are attending college in Ohio and North Carolina.
But what could seem like a directly upward trajectory of a story, is not so simple, straight or neat. Ashley’s younger sister, who is now 16, the age when Ashley was tripping up, is enmeshed in the juvenile justice system. She has been in and out of detention, and though Ashley knowsexalt is available as an option, her sister is not (yet) ready to commit to change. Ashley’s parents have had plenty of their own struggles, and the family is all too familiar with the stress and heartache that having one of its members involved in the criminal justice system brings. One of the complicated feelings that can arise is guilt. How can Ashley fully embrace her successes when her sister is locked up? When her parents and baby brother are still stuck in that mud?
It’s so easy to follow the temptation of thinking that once a young person who faces tremendous obstacles reaches a particular milestone, that they’ve made it. But making it to the high peaks of high school graduation, or college enrollment, are not checks on a list that once marked, suggest closure to the chapters that preceded them. We know that many students who’ve struggled to get to college fail or drop out early on – particularly from community colleges. And it’s true that a significant factor in their “failure” is insufficient academic preparation. But the emotional components of making this leap are often ignored. Being a pioneer in one’s family, peer group, culture, can be an incredibly lonely journey.
At exalt, because we are premised on the awareness that change is a process, and not an event, we feel Ashley’s transformation very personally and profoundly. She is not just a “success story,” she is the embodiment of commitment, and the manifestation of hope carefully tended to with calculated decisions.
And while we don’t know what will happen next, we do know that Ashley is equipped with some very powerful tools to help her navigate her next chapters.