Valjean Guerra, 26, describes his path to graduation as long, windy, and ultimately worthwhile. From the time he was a teenager, he had an interest in the performing arts. Guerra, the son of Trinidadian and Venezuelan immigrants, begged his parents to allow him to attend one of New York's arts-focused public high schools, where he wanted to study modern dance and try his hand at the guitar or maybe the drums. Guerra's parents balked — and when it was time to talk about college, they insisted he study something they considered practical and lucrative, like computer software engineering. Even so, when Guerra came to them with a partial scholarship offer from a Pennsylvania school that would have required his parents to pay or borrow about $20,000 a year, Guerra's father declared that he had no plans to "waste his money."
The conversation sent Guerra on a six-year odyssey through four different community and technical colleges and three different majors. At the first school, Guerra managed to pass just one class — history — and posted a grade-point average that today makes him chuckle: 0.80. By the time he arrived at LaGuardia, Guerra had finally found the ability to focus, to pull down a GPA of which he is proud (3.3 as of last semester) while working nearly full-time hours as a licensed barber. He also found a way to connect studies in mass communications with his passionate interest in the performing arts.
After he enrolled at LaGuardia three years ago, Guerra joined a theater arts club at the school and participated in as many shows as his schoolwork, job, and commute would allow. He researched four-year performing arts programs and questioned LaGuardia faculty and students about what would make him an attractive applicant. And, eventually, his father apologized for his comments about tuition and waste.
A few months ago, Guerra applied to New York University and hopes to hear news about the school's admissions decision sometime in the next two weeks. If he gets in, his next steps will be guided by the goal of eventually earning a master's degree in fine arts.
In 2011, Kat Lam, now 20, came from Hong Kong to the U.S. with her mother looking for a way to build a career in science. She had just finished high school, but scientific jobs in Hong Kong were scarce and admission to the country's universities extremely competitive. For a girl from a lower-income family, it was also extremely rare.
When Lam and her mother arrived, they discovered the sorts of challenges that confront many low-income and first-generation American-born college students. Lam didn't have enough money to enroll in college right away. She was not eligible for federal student aid and her family did not have the money to cover tuition and fees.
Lam found two retail jobs while her mother struggled to find just one in any industry. Soon, Lam found herself trapped in a soul-sucking routine. Get up. Go to work. Go to a second job. Go home to Flushing, Queens. Lam was lonely and craved the challenge of learning. She often felt as if she was participating in some sort of grueling psychological study.