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When Scholars Apply to College, Coordinator Has Their Backs

Laressa Bordenave, College Coordinator

A woman in a green shirt poses against a colorfully painted mural

When you apply to college, it’s important to have someone in your corner. From taking the SAT/ACT to writing essays to securing financial aid, the process can be tricky and complicated.

Laressa Bordenave knows this firsthand.

A straight-A student aiming for a degree in community health, she completed all the requirements and submitted her applications. But after months without a response, Laressa made a distressing discovery: there was a mix up with her applications and the colleges never received them.

But Laressa was determined. With the advice of a friend enrolled in a college prep program, she sorted out the issue and got her applications into the hands of the college admissions officers. Not long after, the acceptances came pouring in.

“At the time, I didn’t understand what happened with my applications,” Laressa says. “I never want anyone to have to go through what I did.”

She’s making sure of that. A college coordinator at HCZ’s Employment & Technology Center (ETC) for students in grades 9-12, Laressa helps her students apply to college, provides them with resources, and imparts critical lessons on self advocacy — everything they need to own the college application process.

Lessons in Self Empowerment

Staff members like Laressa are critical to advancing our mission. At HCZ, we believe college is the primary means of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. That’s why we provide community-responsive and wraparound youth programs like ETC that prepare our kids to get into and succeed in college.

One of the most important lessons we impart is self-empowerment. While stressful, Laressa’s college application nightmare helped shape her approach as a college coordinator. At the time, she advocated for herself. Now, she’s teaching her students to do the same.

“I’m proud to see my students take responsibility for their choices and make changes in their best interests,” she says.


Community of Support

But while it’s important to advocate for yourself, it’s also important to have a community advocating for you. After relocating to Brooklyn from Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake in the country, Laressa was taken in by her uncle and enrolled in the school where he taught.

“I didn’t get time to process everything,” she says. “It was an earthquake, then moving, then a new school, and then a new language.”

To get acclimated, she built on the conversational English she learned in Haiti. Through persistence (she studied diligently and honed her language skills with episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and the support of those around her (her French and Creole-speaking classmates helped her with English translations and teachers sometimes let her take tests in French), she eventually became fluent in English.


College is Only the First Step

Now, Laressa is helping to lead a similar village of support at Harlem Children’s Zone’s ETC. She loves celebrating her students’ successes, pausing the music that pumps through the ETC building to announce a student’s college acceptance over the loudspeaker.

“[The students] try to act all cool and not get embarrassed,” Laressa laughs. “But I know they’re proud. We’re proud of them, too.”

It’s a huge milestone. Still, Laressa reminds her students that getting into college is only the first step.

“Then you need financial aid, letters of recommendation,” she says. “I remind my students, ‘We have a lot of work left to do!’