Harvard Law Grad Helps Low-Income Students Aim High
When Ismelda Mejia, a junior at a large public high school in the Bronx, was invited to the principal’s office earlier this fall along with nine of her classmates, she was thrilled to discover the reason why. Her GPA placed her among the top 10 students in her class. In fact, Ismelda was No. 3.
But after the principal and college counselor praised the students for their academic achievements, the rest of the message fell flat. The administrators presented the students with what Mejia considered a surprisingly narrow set of options: They could attend one of the city or state’s public colleges, known as the CUNYs (City University of New York) and SUNYs (State University of New York), or they could find a job.
“ ‘You guys have really high grades, so we expect you to be able to at least go to a SUNY,’ ” Ismelda recalls staff telling the group. “ ‘But if not, here's a list of things you can do without having to go to college.’ ”
Ismelda, a student with Ivy League aspirations — she has her sights set on Brown University — was appalled. Although her Dominican-born mother did not attend college, Ismelda plans to become a lawyer and specialize in representing children who’ve been abused. Three years ago, she took a big step toward realizing that ambition. She enrolled in a Queens-based afterschool program, Legal Outreach, founded by James O’Neal. It encourages low-income students to attend the nation’s top schools — and prepares them to thrive once they get there.