Throughout November, New York City’s public high schools are participating in Financial Aid Awareness Month, the DOE’s annual citywide effort to help students plan for life after high school and get cash for college and career training programs. This month-long effort is part of the DOE’s broader College Access for All initiative, which aims to provide the City’s middle and high schools with the resources and supports they need to prepare their students for college and careers.

In celebration of Financial Aid Awareness Month, we caught up with five of the City’s high school seniors to discuss their plans and efforts to attend college in fall 2019. Each of these students took time out of their busy fall schedules to chat with us about their college application experiences, including their program choices, family influences, personal statements, and what “financial aid” means to them. As students at participating College Access for All high schools, each of these students have received (and will continue to receive) support to complete four matriculation milestones: taking the SAT, completing college applications, submitting financial aid applications, and enrolling into a postsecondary program within six months of graduation.

See what our five high school seniors had to say about applying to college, and keep an eye out later this school year for additional updates from these students as they get closer to their graduation date in June 2019!

Meet Our Five Students

Alyssa Cruz

Alyssa Cruz, Wagner H.S.

Alyssa Cruz
Susan E. Wagner High School
Class of 2019

Alyssa, a Staten Island native, is a student in Wagner H.S.’s Law and Politics program. Currently, she is her school’s senior class vice-president and captain of Wagner’s Asian-American Club. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society.

Alyssa’s parents were born and raised in the Philippines, and her older sister is currently studying to become a nurse at the College of Staten Island. Alyssa is working towards becoming a lawyer.



Didi Perdomo, Randolph H.S.

Didianys “Didi” Perdomo
A. Philip Randolph H.S.
Class of 2019

Born and raised in New York City, Didi is enrolled at Randolph H.S.’s Academy of the Humanities. Didi is currently a member of the National Honor Society, and she is an alum of New York University’s College Access Leadership Institute, a highly selective summer program for high school sophomores and juniors who are seeking to learn more about the college admissions process.

Didi, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, aims to be among the first of her siblings to graduate from college. Didi is interested in studying finance after high school; she eventually would like to run a practice focused on helping women start their own businesses.


Fawaz Ishak pic

Fawaz Ishak, Martin Van Buren H.S.

Fawaz Ishak
Martin Van Buren H.S.
Class of 2019

Fawaz is a Queens resident enrolled in Martin Van Buren’s Pre-Med program. As one of seven siblings, including a fraternal twin sister, Fawaz is a highly motivated, community-minded scholar; he enjoys volunteering for events and programs at Van Buren and at his local mosque. He is a member of Van Buren’s Scholars Club Committee and the National Honor Society.

Following high school, Fawaz is determined to follow in his parents footsteps and attend college. His twin sister already has a head start on him; she graduated from Bayside High School in June 2018 and is currently attending Queens College. Fawaz is interested in studying pharmacy.


Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx is one of NYC's most historic high schools

The entrance of Lehman High School in the Bronx.

Aminata Gadji
Herbert H. Lehman High School
Class of 2019

Aminata, born and raised in the Bronx, attends Lehman High School’s Anne Hutchinson Academy. Her parents, originally from Senegal, instilled a love of learning into Aminata; she especially enjoys learning computer science. Recently, she helped the American Museum of Natural History develop its OLogy science website for kids. In addition to writing code, Aminata loves to write poetry, and she enjoys joining causes and efforts at Lehman help foster positive change.

Following college, Aminata would like to enter medical school.


Victory Collegiate High School is Located Inside the South Shore High School Campus in Brooklyn

Victory Collegiate is located inside the South Shore Educational Campus in Brooklyn.

Amberlace Branch
Victory Collegiate High School

Class of 2019

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Amberlace hopes to follow in her parents footsteps, as they both went to college. She is interested in studying journalism, business administration, and management.


Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

Would you please tell us which colleges you’ve applied to so far? Why did you choose those programs?

Alyssa: I applied to CUNY (John Jay, Hunter, and the College of Staten Island) and Seton Hall.  I’m just more of a city girl; I just love the urban scenery and environment. While I appreciate that schools outside the City have some nature, I just feel like I need to be in a place where great coffee isn’t too far away! I’m especially interested in John Jay and Seton Hall; I heard great things about John Jay from other students (at Wagner’s Law and Politics program).

Didi: SUNY (Albany, Alfred State, and Buffalo State), CUNY (City College, Lehman, Baruch, Hunter, John Jay, and City Tech), Barry University, Adelphi University, Monroe College, and Pace University. I based my college choices off of the majors and programs that they offer and whether I’ll have easy access to resources and activities. I also want to be able to have an easy trip back home whenever the need comes up.

Fawaz: I chose CUNY (Queens College, John Jay, York, Baruch, and Hunter), Long Island University, and St. John’s. I chose these schools because they are close to home; I don’t want to leave my family and my home while I’m in college.

Aminata: I’ve applied to SUNY (Stony Brook and Binghamton), CUNY (Hunter, City College, Macaulay Honors, and Brooklyn College), Cornell University, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. Thanks to the QuestBridge program, I was able to apply to Stanford, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia. I chose these schools because I want to go to medical school after college.

Amberlace: So far, I’ve applied to SUNY Cortland, CUNY (Hunter, BMCC, and Lehman), and the University of Maryland. I’m still deciding on whether or not to apply to other schools. I’m interested in majoring in journalism, business administration, and management, so I selected each of these schools because they all have at least one of those majors.


“Seriously, how does anyone get anything done in college?!” – Alyssa Cruz

Did your parents/family/friends influence your school selections? How so?

Alyssa: Oh, definitely my parents. After all, they play such a huge role in my life. They were the ones who pushed me to go into college in the first place. Back in the Philippines, there aren’t a lot of people who go to college, so for my parents, the fact that I get the chance to go is a pretty big deal. I also credit my parents for giving me the perspective I needed to make my college choices.  When I was looking at schools, I looked at each of them like, “do I want to go here, or do I NEED to go here?”

Fawaz: Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after high school until my junior year. I was talking to one of my friends about what we wanted to do after graduation, and he talked to me about getting into the pharmaceutical industry, as that was something he was looking into himself. So I looked into it, and I liked what I saw, so I said to myself, ‘hey, why don’t I give this a try, too?” Also, my parents went to college, so they were able to help inform me about my options and what to expect. I even learned a lot from my twin sister, as she went through this college application process last year. Now I’m learning from her as she goes through her first year in college.

Amberlace: Yes, they definitely did. At first, I didn’t know or understand the point of college. I didn’t really know why I should go; I didn’t think it was all that important for me. Over time, though, my friends and family members encouraged me to begin thinking seriously about college, especially after I realized what I actually wanted to do with my life and career. Once I knew what I was interested in majoring in, I began to make my college selections.


“I wish I realized early on that EVERYTHING COUNTS towards getting into college” – Aminata Gadji


What was it like filling out your applications? Did you find them difficult to complete and submit? Were there any questions that stumped you?

Didi: It was pretty challenging because I was expected to select a college that I’ll be going to for four years; I just really wanted to make sure that I made the right choice. I also wanted to make sure that the answers I placed in my applications sounded like me; I want colleges to really know who I am. The essay part was especially challenging; I had an idea last year for my essay, but after writing my thoughts down last year and looking at what I wrote a year later, I felt like my old essay just didn’t reflect who I am now. So I had to rewrite it.

Fawaz: It was alright; it really wasn’t difficult at all. It was just a matter of my sitting down and being focused enough to actually complete them. At first, I didn’t have a sense of urgency to complete my applications; after all, college applications are not like homework. I didn’t HAVE to apply for college; it wasn’t like an assignment that I needed to complete for a grade. Once I realized that filling out a college application wasn’t so much something I HAD to do as much as it was something I NEEDED to do for myself, my mindset changed. I realized applying to college wasn’t about my satisfying someone else’s standards; it was about doing something for myself and my own future. Once I made up my mind to complete my applications, the process went relatively smooth after that.

Aminata: Overall, the toughest part about filling out my applications were the essays; I found it tough to talk about myself. For me, I felt like writing about myself in those essays was a bit boastful, so I never felt comfortable writing them. I wound up working with my counselor, who made me realize that my essay provided colleges with the best opportunity to get to know what makes me stand out from everyone else. She told me that colleges use essays to determine whether or not you fit on their campuses; so with that in mind, I was able to write my college essays.


Friendly reminder to complete your FAFSA by November 30, 2018, in order to qualify for some of the best financial aid offers available for fall 2019!

What role will financial aid play in your eventual decision?

Alyssa: It’s going to play a huge role for me. I really don’t want to burden my parents with a bill.

Didi: Financial aid will definitely play a huge role; simply put, I will be going to the school that awards the best package. I want to be comfortable financially; I don’t want to worry about finances. Instead, I just want to be able to concentrate on school without having to think too much about paying for it.

Amberlace: It’s going to be a big deal for me. I want to make sure that I’m on track with my financial aid, and that all my books and materials are being paid for.


“I realized applying to college wasn’t about my satisfying someone else’s standards; it was about doing something for myself and my own future.” – Fawaz Ishak


What are some questions that you still have about college and the application process at this point? Is there something you wish you knew before you started this process?

Alyssa: Yeah; how do you deal with Senioritis? <laughs>  No, but seriously; how does anyone get anything done in college? I need to learn how to manage my time better once I get there.

Didi: Generally, I’m slightly confused about FAFSA, TAP, and financial aid in general, but my mom and I are working with staff members at my school to help fill everything out. Also, I really wish I thought about my college selections earlier; now that I’m a senior, it’s stressful because I’m doing everything now in one semester. And I know it’s my fault; teachers and counselors have been telling us about college since freshman year, but I didn’t really start thinking about it because I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about it until much “later.” Now that “later” is here, now I know I was wrong.

Fawaz: The only question I have is that I would like to know how hard it would be to transfer from one college to another. My cousin transferred from one college to another a few years ago, and I saw how difficult it was for him to make that move. I’d like to know how to make that process easier for myself should I ever want to do the same thing.

Aminata: I want to know how important are standardized tests, like the SAT, the Regents exams, and the like, for colleges, especially the top colleges? Because it can be a bit discouraging if scores mean everything to colleges; I worry that they’re going to judge me too harshly based on my scores. I wished I realized early on that EVERYTHING COUNTS. All the work that I’ve done up till this point counts. My performance as a freshman, my test scores as a sophomore; everything counts towards getting into college. I mean, I don’t think people should be stressed out about that, either, but it’s definitely clear to me that everything you do will show.

Amberlace: I want to know what are the average class sizes of the courses I’ll be taking, and I want to know what percentage of students receive grants. Also, I want to know if your chances are getting into college are affected if you leave out any information about yourself. Finally, I want to know if I’d be able to visit home on the weekends!

Thank you, students, for chatting with us! We wish you success on your applications, and we cannot wait to check in with you again once you begin hearing back from colleges!



The Morning Bell

Official blog for the NYC Department of Education, home of over 1.1 million students across 1,800+ schools

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