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Jumping Through the Hoops of Higher Education

I’m Afrkah Cooper, a senior at Wayne State University (WSU) working as a communications intern with the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees initiative. In our work, we do a lot of research on student access to higher education, graduation rates and talent retention. Sometimes it’s hard to see people through these numbers. One of my goals as an intern is to help share stories of students, which we’ll do in a blog series called “Student Voices.” To get the conversation started, this blog shares a bit about me and my journey through higher education.

My Journey

I work this internship 20 hours a week, I volunteer at a local organization, I’m an active member of a student organization at WSU, and I just started volunteering with a young professional public relations organization – all to gain experience, network and build my resume. I also go to class, help at home, eat, sleep and, when I have time, hang out with friends. No one said student life was easy.

I graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 2013. Prior to that, I attended a Detroit Public Schools elementary and middle school, both now closed.

Research from Youth Policy Lab at the University of Michigan shows that only 18 percent of 2010 Detroit graduates completed college in six years. I knew I was going against the odds but throughout school I consistently made the honor roll, received citizenship awards, and Student of the Month awards. I even graduated from high school magna cum laude. I succeeded in school but getting to college wasn’t easy.

I started applying for scholarships and colleges in the 10th grade. I was determined to go away to college and live like the characters on “A Different World,” a TV show from the early ’90s about students at a historically black college. I did not know where I wanted to go or even what I wanted to major in, but I knew I was going to college.

I worked to improve my ACT score through a free, very intense eight-week prep class at WSU. My ACT score, paired with my high grade point average, got me accepted into almost every four-year university in Michigan, plus Bowling Green University in Ohio. Getting accepted turned out to be the easy part, paying for it was a different story.

I also applied for every scholarship I could get my hands on. After filling out what felt like hundreds of applications, I only received two. I was also eligible for a Pell Grant and many schools offered financial aid packages. Those financial awards combined paid up only a small percentage of my anticipated tuition, room and board.

Creating a Higher Education Plan

I had acceptance letters but no money. According to a new study from Brookings, nearly 40 percent of people with student debt may default on their student loans, whether or not they graduate. Unwilling to take this risk, I was determined to take as few loans as possible.

With this goal in mind, I started at Wayne County Community College the fall after I graduated from high school. With the help of my Pell Grant, The Detroit Promise and The Tuition Incentive Program, I was able to cover my classes and books without any additional costs. With this stress off my shoulders, I excelled in community college and used my time as a transition period, with my heart set on a four-year university.

Despite the challenges to transfer, I made it to WSU and decided to major in public relations. Unlike community college, I need extra money for classes, books and parking. So, I still apply for scholarships on a regular basis. I have received two scholarships since I’ve been at WSU but money is still tight, so I reach out to my community for help.

It Takes a Village

It really does take a village, and my village consists of my mom, grandma, aunts, uncles, godparents, and my mother’s friends.

My mother’s friends have always been supportive of me and my success. I like to believe that I’m their favorite and I know that they are all rooting for me. Every semester, I rotate through the women in my village and ask one person to buy me a book for class. I’m not asking the same person for too much and they’re able to contribute to my education.

My journey to success is not over, I have 26 credits to complete before I graduate and it feels like I’m running out of friends to ask for financial help. I’ve had to adjust to a lot throughout college but I’m confident that I will finish.

Readers, you’ve reached your success and understand what it takes to be a student. As a current student, I’m asking you to step up and be active in your village, whatever that looks like. Sometimes all it takes is buying a book and that book might take someone further than you think.

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If you have a story to share, or know someone who does, please contact acooper@detroitchamber.com.