The coronavirus has forced many young people to grow up quickly, confronted with adult challenges like job losses and food insecurity.
Despite this, a group of 40 high school seniors have overcome these new hurdles and are all headed to college in the fall.
“I’m excited about the new environment that I’m going,” said 19-year-old Malika Sawadogo, a senior at the International High School at Union Square.
Sawadogois headed to Skidmore College this fall.
“I’m not used to this college,” said Sawadogo, “and even no one in my family has experienced this, so I'm really happy.”
Thursday was a day to celebrate, online of course, her graduation from Expanded Horizons College Success. It's a program run by the nonprofit Henry Street Settlement to help primarily low-income high school students get on and stay on a path to college.
“When students are low-income, they don’t have the resources, the data, the school support to access college in a way that students from a wealthier background are able to access college,” said Malika Harris, the director of high school and college success at Henry Street.
The 40 kids normally would graduate in the gym of Henry Street’s Educational Building, but the coronavirus pushed all programs online and transformed the building into a makeshift food pantry serving families in need, including some of those represented in the Horizons program.
“It’s been really challenging for them to adjust,” said Harris. "So you know a lot of our students, they kind of have adult responsibilities.”
Harris said a lot of the graduates’ parents are restaurant workers, some delivering food. That's required students at times to be caregivers for younger siblings. Many families and students, though, are out of work and waiting to be able to make money again.
“The food too, we don’t know how to manage the money, to pay the rent and the food,” said Sawadogo.
Sawadogo is an immigrant from Burkina Faso in West Africa. Her mother, a cashier for the NYC Parks Department and the breadwinner, hasn’t been able to work. She was able to draw a paycheck for a time, but Malika lost her part-time job at H & M during the pandemic, while balancing distance learning with helping to care for her four year old sister.
“They just rise up and they power through it,” said Harris.
Without exception, her students, she said, have overcome the pandemic’s challenges, and in Malika Sawadogo’s case that’s good for the world.
“I want to help everyone, but my main goal is women, widows and orphans,” said Sawadogo.
She hopes to open a business in her home country that helps empower those struggling. Henry Street’s scholarship for all its college students, and the support kids get for up to eight years of high school and college, will help her on that path.