“Climb the mountain to college!” As a 10-year-old kid going to Achievement First Crown Heights Middle School, I remember hearing that a lot.
But I didn’t really know what that meant or how to do it.
I remember reading lots of books because I wanted to be on a level Z by the time I was in 8th grade. I remember working hard to be the multiplication champion of my class. I remember going on lots of college trips and earning scholar dollars. I guess I felt like I was on the right track, and this mountain would be a breeze. But let’s be real, it was only middle school.
When I think about my time in middle school, I realize it got me solid in reading and math, showed me what was possible, and taught me to fight for what I deserve.
However, at AF Brooklyn High School was when the climb really began. It started when they showed me the number 8. That number 8 represents the percentage of low-income students that graduate from college. From that moment on, I knew I did not just want to be a part of that 8%—but I wanted to make that percentage grow.
I was pushed to read difficult texts and annotate them. I want to thank my school for that, even though at the time I thought it was useless. I learned how to write a proper essay and a research paper—and I want to thank my school for making me write lots of them. I want to thank my school for equipping me with the little things like keeping my eyes on the speaker during an interview, and having a firm handshake to show you mean business.
Most importantly, in high school, I remember figuring out my “why.” I needed to figure out for myself: Why am I going to finish college?
Why? I am going to accomplish everything I want in life because I have family who looks up to me and people who depend on me to show others that black excellence is possible. My three younger siblings call me every day to ask me what I’m doing in college and tell me how they want to go to college like me.
Getting to college is one thing. Getting through college is the next step we need to master. My AF peers and I have struggled in STEM fields because we didn’t go as deep in high school as students from other schools did. Students also have to deal with things like financial issues and maintaining their mental health. For instance, I know people that have transferred from college back home because they felt like it was too much pressure and had didn’t have enough resources to help. They said, “I just couldn’t handle it.”
I know everyone who works for AF is reflective, hardworking, and inspiring—because they taught me to be those things. I am not really sure what I want to do after my college career just yet, but I know because of all of them I want to help as many students of color get into college, get through college, and believe in their dreams.
So my challenge to AF is to keep being the push that students need, and to do even more in supporting them through college.
AF has prepared thousands of students. Five years from now, it will be tens of thousands. And, we all know this is bigger than Achievement First. I leave you with this question: How are we going to ensure that every student in this country becomes the woman or man we know they can be?
James is an AF Brooklyn High alumnus and a sophomore at Dartmouth College.