In January, I received my first college acceptance letter from the New York Institute of Technology. When I turned the envelope over, there was designed lettering that read “Good News Inside.”
My heart jumped. I opened the envelope carefully and inside was a decorated card with the giant colorful words, “YOU’RE IN!” and the acceptance letter. It felt good that a college had acknowledged me and wanted me at their campus.
The following weeks brought more acceptances from colleges including Fordham and Rochester Institute of Technology. Eventually, I started to get my financial aid packages. That’s when I had the eye-opening realization that private colleges are expensive.
My dad was willing to try to pay for everything I needed, but I didn’t feel comfortable having my family make such a sacrifice without helping out. So I decided to find a summer job.
Global Kids Helped Me Adjust
Throughout high school, I have been a member of the nonprofit organization Global Kids, which helps nurture kids’ leadership potential. I came to the U.S. from Bangladesh only two years ago, and both the teens and adults at Global Kids helped me overcome challenges adapting to American education.
For example, I was having trouble doing a lot of assignments simply because I didn’t know how to format things like lab reports and certain types of essays. And they taught me other things, like how to properly cite sources and links.
I was nervous to talk to other kids when I first got to the U.S. But Global Kids is a warm and welcoming community, so it was easy for me to make friends there. They knew me as a light-hearted and hardworking person who could be depended on. So in early February, I let them know I was looking for a summer job.
The next few weeks of school were particularly draining with AP tests and Regents, which prevented me from looking into work opportunities. Then public high schools closed due to COVID-19.
This hit me like a wrecking ball. Now that I knew most businesses would be closed down indefinitely, I wondered how I would find a job. One I sorely needed to help pay for college.
Then, in early March, after schools had closed, I received an email from the Global Kids director at my school. It was a link to the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) application.
I had heard of SYEP but didn’t know much about it. Although the SYEP application and hiring works mostly on a lottery system, some schools in high-need neighborhoods are chosen to offer SYEP jobs to a certain number of their students. My school is one of them. I was relieved and excited.
The application offers choices of the type of job you’d like to have. I love to socialize and interact with people, so I applied to mentor middle school children.
I looked forward to it so much. When I heard in early April that SYEP had been canceled, my heart sank. I could think of nothing else but that disappointment. My mind raced, and I forced myself to try and calm down. But I couldn’t.
More than just the job, I was excited about helping others. It would also be a cool insight for me into what American middle schoolers think about.
The stressors of having to stay home and school closing piled up inside of me, and I took the news harder than I might have under normal circumstances.
I felt angry that after landing a job on my own, it had been taken from me. I felt like the universe was against me and had hit the entire world with the virus just to prevent me from being able to have this job. Even as I acknowledged that this idea was overdramatic, I didn’t care. That’s how I was feeling. I felt helpless.
At first, I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I didn’t want people to see me like this. But then I realized I couldn’t keep it in.
I reminded myself that as a member of Global Kids, I mentor freshmen and immigrant kids who are new to my school. As part of this work, I encourage them to talk about their problems and be open about their feelings. It would have been hypocritical if I didn’t take my own advice.
Doing Something About It
I called my older cousin and told her the entire story while she quietly listened. When I was done she said, “You’re smart, you can figure out an alternative. Obsessing about this isn’t going to help. Since SYEP is canceled, think about turning your energies toward doing something about it, rather than just being angry.”
Those words were just what I needed to hear.
After that conversation, I started looking for what I could do. I found out about an online press conference with SYEP coordinators and students from different organizations. I was able to speak at the conference. I talked about how shutting down SYEP would affect a lot of students like me.
It was a good opportunity for me to get my voice out and to actually try to bring SYEP back. The conference was met with a lot of support from council members and state senators who wanted to reinstate SYEP. This gives me hope.
During this pandemic, I feel like it’s highly unlikely that most of us teens who applied for SYEP jobs will be able to land new ones. For now, it feels good to work on trying to make sure that SYEP continues. Rather than just feeling sad, I am taking action to try to make change. Youth have more say in matters than ever before as long as we continue raising our voices.
Want to fight to save SYEP? Join Teen Take Charges’s campaign here.