I met Gissel two years ago through a program called iMentor when she was starting her junior year of high school at The Laboratory School of Finance & Technology in the Bronx. Before our first meeting, she had filled out a questionnaire and said that she wanted to be a dancer. She hadn't really thought about life beyond high school, let alone applying to college.
I worked closely with Gissel -- editing her essays, texting her to check in and just say hi, hanging out with her outside of school to talk about high school life things like Justin Bieber and the SATs.
I kept trying to make her see that there's a way out of a life you were given and a way in to a life you can create. In a matter of months, she joined the track team, helped organize a school fashion show, tutored younger students, and signed up for rigorous AP-level courses for her final year in high school. She did all of this while juggling school and family obligations. I knew it wasn’t easy, but what impressed me the most is that Gissel always figured out a way to make it work. If she needed help, she wasn’t afraid to ask for guidance.
Gissel's family emigrated from Mexico when she was a kid, and she will be the first in her family to attend college. It's a really big deal for her, and she is a little apprehensive about it -- mainly due to the extra financial burden it will have on her family. On the other hand, she knows just how important the very act of going to college will be.
In her college application essay she wrote, "As a first-generation student, I don’t have anyone to look up to. My mom never finished middle school, and my dad never finished high school. They both grew up in a poor community, and they didn’t have the opportunity to continue their studies. But because I want to set an example for my younger siblings, I want to change that trajectory."
We've discussed scholarships, grants, on-campus jobs, and other opportunities she will need to seek out to support herself in college. And not once has she complained. She knows she has to work twice as hard to achieve her dreams, and she stands ready to do it.
The reason I set up this GoFundMe is not because I have doubts she'll make it work, it's because money shouldn't weigh her down in one of the most important pursuits in her life so far.
Like Gissel, my family moved from another country to a real rough neighborhood. My parents were both working up to 3 to 4 jobs and money dictated every decision. It wasn't easy to see a way out. But even during the most grueling times, I will never forget the teachers, tutors, mentors, and kind strangers who gave me something money could never buy: hope.
Today, I'm the one in a position to help. And I see it as an absolute responsibility to pay it forward.
Gissel got accepted to several colleges in the New York area. She selected Bronx Community College due to cost and proximity. She hasn't fully decided on a major, but she's leaning toward criminal justice. Tuition for her first year of college will come to about $5,000. Help me lay some of the foundation so that Gissel can build a future and a life on top of it.