As high school seniors around the country take a sigh of relief as college acceptances roll in, a group of New York City students had an additional reason to celebrate this week.
Deja Daniels, 18, was one of 4,000 high school seniors who got to “sign” her college of choice along with first lady Michelle Obama at College Signing Day on April 26th. The event was part of Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, which encourages first generation and low-income students to pursue higher education.
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“My mom is so jealous,” says Daniels of meeting the First Lady.
For Daniels, an Astoria, Queens native and a graduating senior at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, the event was the culmination of not just her high school education but her decade-long commitment to the “I Have a Dream” Foundation’s New York cohort. She began the program in third grade, and today is deciding between nearly full-ride scholarships at Marist College and SUNY Oswego.
“I think it’s a blessing that I’ve been a part of the program, and it’s given me experiences that I wouldn’t have had [otherwise]. I would be studying for my SATs, going on trips, learning about the FAFSA and filling out CUNY applications before anyone else,” says Daniels.
The “I Have A Dream” Foundation, which started 35 years ago with a cohort of 61 students from P.S. 121 in East Harlem, now operates in 16 states and has a nationwide alumni network. Currently, the foundation’s affiliate in the New York metro area serves 270 students — or “Dreamers” as they are known — in kindergarten through high school.
By following the same group of students from elementary school through college and providing them with extra support and enrichment programs, "I Have a Dream" works to bridge the achievement gap between high and low-income students. In a clear nod to Martin Luther King Jr.'s groundbreaking speech, the program works to fight entrenched inequalities in education.
For Daniels, having consistent access to people who could help with homework or answer questions about the college application process was a crucial part of the program.
“They had a lot of workshops, with pizza and snacks, and you just write. And they got people who were experts to help us,” says Daniels of the college essay process. “They became more like family, and not like staff.”
Nationwide, drearmers are two times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree and 90 percent more likely to graduate high school than their low-income peers.
Though New York City’s graduation rate reached a high of 70 percent in 2015, 64 percent of students who did drop out came from economically disadvantaged homes, according to the New York State Education Department.
Daniels plans to study business and communications, and aspires to one day own a radio company, where she’ll “be the one behind the scenes” producing radio shows and podcast.
“I would say that the name 'I have a dream' really speaks for itself,” says Daniels. “They don’t let you stop dreaming or tell you that something isn’t possible.