It had been years since Yasmin Ali had been in a school. Her first day back in a classroom in the winter of 2014 was scary but exciting.
“I was really worried that I wouldn’t do well, that I forgot everything I studied. I was like, oh my God am I going to be able to do this?” Ali asked. “At first it was kind of hard, but every day I was doing better…I was like, ‘Ok, this isn’t that bad. This is actually really good.’”
Ali finished high school in Yemen and when she came back to the U.S. she was told she needed to get her GED. So she started studying for the exam and received her GED in 2012, but soon after, caring for her parents became a priority and school became a dream.
After encouragement from her sister and her parent’s approval Ali applied to college in 2014, Ali was accepted to CUNY and took the placement exam, but was met with another obstacle. She failed all three sections of the CUNY placement exam. For many that would be defeat, but for Ali it was only a bump in the road.
“That didn’t stop me. That’s not going to tell me I can’t do it now,” she said soft-spoken, reflecting on getting the results. Soon after the exam, Ali found out about a program that would prepare her to retake the assessment exam and prepare her for a college experience.
CUNY Start, a remedial education program hosted by CUNY that was started in 2009, gave Ali the chance she needed to get her college career started. The program provides another outlet aside from remedial classes, which can be time consuming and expensive for students who failed sections of the CUNY Assessment exam to prepare for school.
The goal of the program is to improve student scores on the CUNY Assessment Tests and prepare them for college-level classes.
The program has offered GED students, immigrant students, student in foster care, and older students the chance to get back on academic level in a quick and inexpensive way.
Unlike taking remedial courses as a matriculated student as one of the colleges, students only have to spend $75 for the entire semester, which will allow them to save the limited financial aid dollars for college credit classes. CUNY Start is a more intensive program taking only 16 weeks opposed to multiple semesters and provides a more hands on environment to teach course materials, as well as college advisement that prepares the students for the entire college experience.
“[ CUNY Start] offers an opportunity for students to actually try to address remedial needs prior to matriculation,” said Mia Simon, University Director of CUNY Start. It provides students with significant remedial needs the ability “to address all of those needs in one kind of very intensive period of time” and without wasting federal aid.
CUNY Start offers both a full-time and part-time program at eight CUNY campuses including Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College, Kingsborough Community College, Medgar Evers Community College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, LaGuardia Community College and Queensborough Community College and The College of Staten Island
The course is intensive with 12 or 25 hour weeks for a maximum of 16 weeks. Students are enrolled in academic reading/writing preparation courses, and pre-college math courses that are question and debate based. In addition to test curriculum, students get “college success” advisement that give students advice on time management, studying and other skills.
Ali says the courses were intense and “confusing” at first until it clicked that the teachers were trying to push her to think “deeper.” Though at first she was frustrated and scared. She “just wanted to continue.”
“It’s like a second house to me. Seriously, most of the days are here,” said Ali with a sternness that her soft-spoken voice doesn’t give off typically. “I feel like the whole CUNY Start program is a family to me because they are really nice people and they understand you and try to help you and do so many things for you to make you feel like you are comfortable and want to succeed in life.”
It’s this dedication that sets these CUNY students apart. “I think our students also do a great job of being very persistent. And you know wanting to be here and they should be here and I think they’re good learners,” said Simon.” You know to come to a program that is 25 hours a week or even 15 hours a week with a lot of homework and a lot of rigor really shows that.”
CUNY Start’s success is clear in the data. According to CUNY Newswire, for the first four years the program was running, “students failing two or three subjects have become fully skills proficient — college-ready — at a rate of 48 percent upon program completion, the data show. For each subject area taken by the CUNY Start students, the rate of students attaining proficiency after completing the program is about 70 percent.”
The program went from having 141 students in 2009 to serving about 3,400 students last year. The program has also grown from two campuses to eight, and started a new Foster Care Initiative to serve students with remedial needs that are coming out of foster care.
Simon says part of the reason for the success is the hyper focus on student futures. From the college seminar classes and dedicated teachers to encouraging students to looking into programs like ASAP, CUNY Start wants students to plan for future.
“We have a lot of support for students that are well listened to between the advisement the teacher retention the ability to think of our matriculation. It’s really an intentional step really allowing students to think about their long term fix up and ultimately graduation,” said Simon.
Ali wants to pursue a degree in dental hygiene. She will be applying for programs at City Tech, and she says she would not be there without the CUNY Start program.
“If I had gone straight to college I would have been lost. I would have been like, ‘oh my god, what am I doing here? I don’t know nothing,’” said Ali. “CUNY Start gave me a good opportunity to know everything about college. I feel like if I had gone straight there then I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Right now I feel like I am ready for this.”