Jenifer Weng still hates the sound of a phone ringing. To her, it’ll always mean “Get back to work.”
She started helping around her family’s Tex-Mex restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens, when she was about 5 years old, flipping tortillas or translating for her parents, who speak Mandarin. By the fifth grade, she had started answering phone calls in between homework assignments.
Ms. Weng had grown used to the daily grind of commuting to high school in Manhattan at 6 a.m., starting work at the restaurant when she got back to Queens and saving her tips to give to her mother. Even as she helped keep the restaurant afloat during the pandemic, she excelled in school and applied to universities.
“I can’t let my parents struggle alone,” said Ms. Weng, now 18.
The hard work paid off. Ms. Weng, soon to be a first-generation college student, is one of 12 New York City high school seniors chosen for The New York Times College Scholarship Program this year.
The program, which is supported by public contributions and an endowment fund, will provide each of the students with $15,000 in financial assistance for each year of college. Since 1999, it has helped put hundreds of students through college.
The students who make up this year’s cohort have overcome poverty, bullying, physical and mental health struggles and family tragedies. They each completed their senior year of high school in the midst of a pandemic that threw the city’s inequities into full view.
The students also share a common goal: to create a brighter future, not just for themselves, but for their families and communities.
“Whatever career path I end up taking, it will be very grounded in improving people’s lives and making it easier,” said Samia Afrin, 17.
About 10 years ago, Ms. Afrin and her family arrived in the United States from Bangladesh. Growing up in a lower-income Muslim family in Brooklyn, Ms. Afrin became passionate about fighting injustice. She will study political science at the University of Rochester, becoming the first woman in her family to attend college.
For Brian Zhang, 17, his education at Yale University will be the first step in achieving his goal of caring for undocumented immigrants. In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mr. Zhang and his parents share a cramped living space, kitchen and one bathroom with 14 floor mates.
Despite the financial hardships, Mr. Zhang said his upbringing inspired him to work to become a doctor and to one day open a clinic for undocumented immigrants. His first priority is to buy his parents a house.
Lamia Haque, 18, said she spent much of her childhood searching for her voice. In high school, while writing opinion pieces on immigration for her student newspaper, she found it.
As the eldest child in her Bangladeshi household, Ms. Haque had to pave a road for her younger siblings and learn how to navigate life in the United States for her parents. She will attend Williams College in Massachusetts and wants to pursue a career in criminal law.
After experiencing racist bullying in middle school, Jelyse Williams, who is Black, said she learned to trust others and gained confidence as a student at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan, where she became known as “the girl with 101 hobbies.” Ms. Williams, 18, also excelled as an intern at Google. She plans to study biomedical engineering at the University at Buffalo and hopes to combine her interests in design and technology to help others.
“I want to change people’s lives for the better,” said Ms. Williams.
Many of the scholars shared their family’s immigration stories. For some, their acceptance into top universities was the American dream their parents were searching for.
“I don’t want to forget where I came from and the people who helped me get here,” said Aima Ali, 17, who will be attending Cornell University and plans to go to law school.
Ms. Ali, who lives in Brooklyn, said she didn’t apply to colleges more than five hours away from home because she wanted to stay close to her family, who immigrated from Pakistan when she was a year old. Ms. Ali helps care for her 4-year-old sister, who has autism, and she said that experience has made her want to study disability rights, as well as immigration law.
Enlik Tagasheva had to grow up quickly. When she was 5, her mother, who had left their home in Kazakhstan to come work in the United States as an interpreter, suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed. Ms. Tagasheva came to the United States soon after and has spent much of her childhood caring for her mother.
Now 18 and headed to Bard College, she dreams of starting a Kazakh youth group to host safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and sexual assault survivors. She’d also love to open a museum dedicated to Kazakh art and history, she said, “because all we have is Borat.”
As a child in Estonia, Alex Koiv said he did not receive a particularly creative education and he did not have many opportunities to branch out. But as a high school student in New York City, he found he had the option to choose his electives and discovered a love for robotics and coding.
Inspired by the movie “Yes Man,” he adopted the habit of saying yes to just about everything while in high school to push himself out of his comfort zone. Mr. Koiv, 18, plans to study computer science at Cornell and hopes to eventually work at NASA or SpaceX.
Jailene Sinchi, 17, is determined to receive the type of education her parents could not. Growing up in East Harlem, Ms. Sinchi listened to her parents’ stories of living in Ecuador and the sacrifices they made to survive.
Ms. Sinchi said she was anxious about moving from El Barrio to Ithaca, N.Y., which is far less diverse, to attend Cornell. On the way there to visit, she said she saw Confederate flags. Still, she looks forward to studying psychology and eventually becoming a doctor.
“Fear is inevitable, but letting that fear control my life is intolerable,” she said.
Danielle Knight was 14 when she learned the importance of “speaking up for the soft-spoken,” she said. That’s when her cousin Shamoya was killed by a stray bullet in the Bronx on New Year’s Eve. They were the same age. Since then, she has felt compelled to tell the stories of people like Shamoya and the communities they come from.
Ms. Knight, 17, will major in journalism at Stony Brook University. Part of her wants to travel the world, while another part wants to be the next Don Lemon. Maybe she’ll start her own radio station, too, she said.
For Tigerlily Hopson, 17, college didn’t always seem within reach. In elementary school, her love for storytelling was at odds with her dyslexia. And at home, her mother pored over expenses with a calculator in hand while the cupboards were empty.
But Ms. Hopson said she came into her own as a journalist and activist in high school, when she helped resurrect her school’s newspaper. This fall, she will be joining Mr. Zhang at Yale.
And then there’s Nikole Rajgor, a 17-year-old from the Bronx. At 14, she took on a responsibility that few people in her life knew about. Her mother agreed to temporarily foster a friend’s newborn son, and Ms. Rajgor cared for him while balancing school. While bathing him one day, he called her “mama.”
Despite the stress and dirty diapers, she said her time raising a foster baby helped her become more mature. After a year, it was time for the baby to go home.
For her, attending Hunter College will be a time for her to make connections and explore her interests. Ms. Rajgor said she would like to become a journalist, write at least one book and amplify the stories of others. But ultimately, she said, finding success will be simple.
“As long as I’m happy,” she said.
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