By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The rally outside a Bensonhurst high school had students pouring out the doors of the building on the afternoon of Dec. 14. Hundreds of young people gathered outside the school’s entrance for the big moment. There were chants, cheers, and inspirational speeches. But it wasn’t a protest demonstration.
The rally outside the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders at 2630 Benson Ave., a New York City Outward Bound School located on the Lafayette High School campus, was a happy event. It was a rally that focused on the students’ bright futures.
On Friday, the school’s seniors, cheered on by their fellow students, mailed their college admissions applications, thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, which dispatched a mail truck to the school. The rally took place to mark the special occasion. If you don’t think mailing a college application is worthy of a rally, read on.
Many of the students attending the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders live in Coney Island and other communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Their homes were flooded. They lost heat, electricity, clothing, and Internet access for several weeks after the super-storm.
Yet they didn’t let that stop them from applying to colleges. When they couldn’t log onto the college’s websites to apply for admissions, they wrote out their applications by hand or they traveled to other neighborhoods where there was Internet access, to work on friends’ computers.
They also stayed after school, in some cases, until 8 o’clock at night, to work with teachers and Caitlin Forey, the college advisor, on their applications.
They wound up mailing the applications well before the Jan. 1 deadline.
David O’Hara, the principal of the school, said he is proud of the students. “"Many of our students have overcome incredible adversity to get to this day. Some of them have lost more than most could have imagined during the hurricane, others have battled personal and financial challenges at home, and yet all have persevered to get to this moment,” O’Hara said.
“Our students have proven the central lesson that our school teaches: regardless of your background, regardless of your circumstances, you are capable of much more than you know," O’Hara said.
Idalia Coats and her family had a tough time due to Sandy. A resident of Coney Island, Idalia was forced to evacuate with her family. “We stayed in a church. The priests were so nice to us.” Still, life post-Sandy was difficult. “It was hard,” she said. When she returned to Coney Island she saw “a lot of destruction.” There was sand everywhere. “There were cars on gates,” she said.
When the family finally had access to a computer, Idalia had to share it with her siblings. “I had to make sure they were doing their homework,” she said. But she didn’t let her college admissions hopes take a back seat. She stayed late at school to make sure she completed filling out the applications to such schools at Hunter College, John Jay College, Penn State, Pace University and others.
“I was relieved when I saw that envelope go in the mailbox,” she said. Idalia hasn’t made up her mind what course of study she will pursue in college. She is considering forensic science, biology, or mechanical engineering.
Anees Mohammad lives with his family on Ocean Parkway. His family’s home was largely spared from Sandy’s wrath, but his mother’s car was heavily damaged and he lost Internet access for several weeks. “It was difficult,” he said.
Anees, who applied to such prestigious schools as Cornell University, Columbia University, and Colgate University, never doubted that he would file his application on time because he and his peers encouraged each other through the entire process. “We held each other accountable. We had to live up to our own expectations and the expectations of our peers,” he said.
He described the application process as a journey. “It has been difficult, but it has been worth it,” he said.
Anees spoke at the student rally on Friday. “It was an honor. I felt like the morale of the whole school was up. I tried to deliver a message that you have to be determined in life. You can’t let anything stop you,” he said.
Anees, who plans to major in either biology or mechanical engineering in college, is a peer mentor at the school, meaning that he mentors the students serving as mentors. He is also a member of the school’s Tech Team and serves as a troubleshooter when technical equipment breaks down.
Iraida Rodriguez lives in a Zone A section of in Coney Island. Her family did not evacuate during the hurricane. They rode out the storm, but there were hardships. “We had no heat. And we lost the Internet,” she said. The family had a generator to supply electricity.
Determined to get her college applications in on time, she used her resourcefulness. “I typed my essays on my iPhone,” she said. She also asked her mother if she could go to her cousin’s house in Flatbush because the cousin had internet access.
“The teachers supported all of us and helped us. I stayed in school until 8 o’clock at night to get everything finished,” Iraida said. After getting the applications mailed in, “I felt it was a big accomplishment’ she said.
Like Anees, Iraida is a peer mentor at the school. She also runs community meetings held at the school. The colleges she applied to include Syracuse University and Middlebury College. She plans to major in communications and study media, advertising, and sales.
Bakhodir Razakberdiev lives in Bensonhurst. His home was not flooded, but he lost the Internet. “I went to the library to do research,” he said. He wrote his college admissions essays the old fashioned way – by hand. He never complained. “I’m the oldest in the family and I felt like I had to be an example to my younger siblings,” he said. He was able to type his essays on a computer when his Internet came back.
Bakhodir was also one of the speakers at the rally. His message to his fellow students? “When you have an opportunity to do something, like apply to college, do it. If you have to overcome obstacles, overcome them,” he said.
The colleges he sent applications to include Lafayette University, Colgate University, Stonybrook University, and the University of Hartford.
The Outward Bound program works in partnership with the New York City Department of Education to operate several schools in the five boroughs. Outward Bound was founded in 1987.