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The Newark senior found support during college

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A typical day for Bernadette Asuqua means serving as senior class president, keeping up with college classes, running an event planning business, and finding time to work on college applications.

Senior year of high school is often stressful, but Asukuo, an 18-year-old senior at Essex County Technical High School in Newark, says she’s not stressed. The Newark student is keeping calm largely because of the support she found during college.

“People around me are always like, ‘Why are you so relaxed about the whole college application process?’ Asuquo said. “It’s because I’ve been given the tools I need and the people around me to help me.”

With college and university application deadlines approaching, students like Asuquo are busy writing essays and personal statements while juggling class loads, extracurricular activities, and savoring the final moments of senior year.

Even after students apply to college, those who identify as first-generation college students or from low-income families face additional challenges, such as finding ways to pay for college, navigating federal applications, help, understanding financial aid options, and deciding what major or college to choose.

This is reported by the US Department of Education mentoring programs and other programs can help by providing a professional network of experts to support low-income high school students through the admissions process.

For Asuquo, that extra help came from EdMom Scholars, a free program that offers college application counseling for “high-achieving, underprivileged students” from experienced college counselors and career coaching from professionals. Students like Asuquo receive advice from volunteer college counselors who guide juniors and seniors through the admissions process and help them find financially sound colleges.

“Honestly, at first, like this summer, it was hard for me to think about how much I needed to do,” the senior class president said. “But then when I got help from EdMom, it really put it into perspective.”

Although Asuka is a student at the school, she is also a dual major and is working towards getting her combined education diploma and high school diploma in June. Although she is familiar with applications and forms, Asuquo said she found it difficult to follow all the application requirements and the documents she had to submit.

Kate Sonenberg, executive director of EdMom Scholars, said the goal of the program is to help “talented students” like Asuquo who can’t afford private college counseling navigate the college application process. The program currently has eight students from across North Jersey, and they hope to help more next school year.

“Applying to college is not easy, and counselors at public schools have a heavy workload,” said Sonenberg, a former application reader for Princeton University’s admissions office. “We want to bridge that gap and provide low-income students with the counseling that affluent students typically receive.”

Through the program, Asuquo has so far applied to Stockton, Rowan and Northeastern universities and hopes to apply to Spelman College and Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Yale.

She has received letters from Rowan and Stockton, but is waiting to hear back from the other schools before making a final decision. Her main goal is to get maximum financial aid for college and save her parents money.

“It’s just exciting, but it’s also kind of nerve-wracking because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Asuqua said of her college admissions. “I understand that college isn’t cheap, so you have to go where they give you the most money.”

In addition to EdMom, Asuquo has the full support of her family during her admissions process and says they let her choose her major. She hasn’t settled on one yet, but hopes to pursue a degree in business, marketing or pre-medical education so long as she can travel abroad while in college, Asukuo said.

As a teenager who was born in Africa and immigrated to the United States when she was 13, Asuka is proud of her accomplishments, and no matter what she decides to do, she hopes to make her family proud.

“I really want to be successful,” Asuquo said. “I really want to be better than the generation before me, and I just want to make my mark on the world.”

Meanwhile, Asuquo is busy planning graduation events for her class and keeping up with them her event planning and customization business. She says she has to keep reminding herself that she can’t do everything, but she’s looking forward to enjoying her final months of high school.

Asuquo’s top advice to other students is to “take a break” from college stress and find help.

“You have to prioritize and make a list of things you need to do, and then when you know what you’re going to do, take a break,” Asuquo said. “Then come back stronger with a fresh perspective because eventually you’ll burn out if you don’t.”

Jessie Gomez is a Chalkbeat Newark reporter covering public education in the city. Contact Jesse at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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