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Paving the Way for Opportunities

Ana Perez-Villagomez, a freshman math major at Barnard College in New York, N.Y., is paving the way for herself and other first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

From an early age, Ana was fascinated by the idea of attending college. When she entered South Magnet High School in Omaha, Neb., she didn’t fully understand what college was, but was determined to get there. She would have conversations with her parents about attending college because she wanted to make them aware of her dream. “My parents were so supportive, but they didn’t know what school fully entailed when it came to things like honors and advanced placement classes.”

This meant that Ana had to forge her own path on her journey to college, a challenge made easier when, while a sophomore in high school, she learned about College Possible Omaha through a friend. By then, she recognized that she would face challenges being the first person in her family to attend college, and would need support in navigating the college process. She saw College Possible as a resource that could provide her with support and guidance, and it wasn’t long before this belief was proven to be true.

“College Possible assigns coaches that adapt to each individual,” Ana explained. “They find opportunities that match individual students.” Ana’s high school coach, Beth Kernhagen, was no different. When Ana was a senior, Beth shared an opportunity to join Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room, an initiative targeted at 14- to 19-year-olds interested in attending a four-year university, community college or professional trade school after high school. Ana was selected to be a part of the program in early 2017 and had the opportunity to meet the former first lady, which was a life-changing experience. “Meeting her was empowering. It demonstrated to me the realities of what we believe are unattainable opportunities.”

When it came to applying for college, Ana focused on schools out of state. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and looked at schools that would give me that opportunity,” she noted.

She learned about Barnard College through a connection at College Possible. After participating in Barnard Bound, an overnight program that exposes students to the college and the surrounding community, Ana decided to commit to the school. “At first, it was difficult transitioning from Omaha to New York City. It was a little overwhelming because everything was fast paced — even taking the subway was something new.” Of course, having the support of a coach from College Possible Philadelphia — Avere Scurry — helps, too.

Ana also credits the people she met through Barnard Bound to helping her adjust to life in New York City. “The program was geared toward low-income students and students of color,” she explained. “I learned that no matter where in the world you are, there are people like you. The people I met have continuously motivated me.”

In addition to balancing school and a part-time babysitting job, Ana continues to look for opportunities to help other students with backgrounds similar to hers. She holds a leadership position in FLIP (First-Generation Low-Income Partnership), an organization that provides resources to first-generation low-income students, including items such as textbooks and the ShareMeals app. She understands the struggle that students go through purchasing textbooks for school and wanted to lessen the burden for others. Currently, she serves as chair for the organization’s lending library, which allows students to borrow from 1,000 different textbooks available at Columbia University’s library. The program is now at Barnard College.

For the last several years, Ana has set annual goals to help others. In high school, she created a scholarship list, which she shared with other students — a practice she still continues; “I wanted to build off of that [initial list], and keep it going.” This year’s goal: to share all opportunities — from scholarships to jobs — with others.

Always striving to create new opportunities for herself, Ana recognizes the people and organizations that have helped her succeed. In 2017, she made her first donation to College Possible Omaha. “College Possible has provided me so much support; it is indescribable. I want College Possible to keep going for a long time.”

By Ian Reitz

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