"In high school, I was known by many of my peers as the student who does “too much.” My day-to-day may sound like a lot to other people, but it was only the start for me. Because of that, I think I was hit particularly hard by COVID."
July 31, 2020
My interests were organized into three focuses. My first focus was on student government/student engagement. That included being class senator by junior year, being on the leadership team, and founding my own “College Access” program at my school. My second focus was on community service. I was president of my school’s biggest club and my school’s most prominent organization, the National Honor Society, as the member services chairmen. I interacted with a total of a thousand students per month, which was 1/5th of my school’s population. My mission was to provide ways to fulfill their community service requirement by finding events and holding fundraisers all year long. My club broke the record for the number of cans donated and community service hours logged in one semester. My last focus was on law/politics. I was on both of my school’s law teams: Moot Court and Mock Trial, being the only member holding a double role on Mock Trial two years in a row. I was the president of my school’s Model UN club. I was also given a chance to intern for senator Andrew Gournades, but the pandemic made me lose that opportunity. I am also on my school’s cheerleading team and recently baseball team.
Doing a lot and growing my network has taught me lessons about teamwork, communication, and my passion. My experience has been unique because I have been involved in a spectrum of interests. Of course, I had my focuses, but I invested in joining different communities. That enriched my high school experience and was an investment in myself. I joined because I cared, and I cared because I was committed to myself. I gained friends that took care of me, excitement to go to school, and respect from my peers and the administration.
When high schoolers ask me for advice, I share my motto, “put all of your eggs in all of the baskets.” Figure out how to join as many communities as you can, and put in your best effort. That is when passion is born. I fell in love with my work. I do not think of it as saying yes to everything, because in reality, I am just looking for more things to fall in love with.
"I quickly realized that in these discussions, I was one of the only low-income, first-generation, people of color. Unfortunately, it means that I have had a drastically different experience growing up regarding the topics we were talking about."
July 24, 2020
An aspect of writing these blogs that I especially love is reading a success I had that week. I love small successes. I believe they help supplement more significant achievements. However, small or big, finding ways to feel like you have won when the world is losing embodies hope for the future. I cannot possibly remember all of the times I have felt defeated in quarantine. Similarly, all the times I have felt triumphant. What I can remember is how I made myself feel better through hardship. I urge everyone to try their best to make themselves feel empowered. My first step in doing this was taking back my narrative that quarantine tried to control.
Recently, I have reclaimed my narrative by pursuing ways to achieve my personal goals this summer. I am a 2020 Bank of America Student Leader. With this internship, I have collaborated with nonprofits around New York City, such as the YMCA. I have bee doing exciting work for them, such as looking for COVID-19 relief grants. A task that I thought I could never do considering my age and experience. This has only been a testament to the new and exciting opportunities the youth has during the pandemic if they do not succumb to the situation.
In my internship, we have discussed topics such as the role of nonprofits in our communities, racial equity in America, food insecurity in America, and educational opportunity in relation to college behind bars. Another moment that sticks out was last week. Bank of America teamed up with Stanford for the Young Democracy Summit at home, an event which would have been held in DC for all Student Leaders. The summit lasted two days and was set up in a debate-style with questions posed to the group.
The first day we talked about multiple topics in the economy. The second day we talked about healthcare issues. I quickly realized that in these discussions, I was one of the only low-income, first-generation, people of color. Unfortunately, it means that I have had a drastically different experience growing up regarding the topics we were talking about. During the discussion, a student leader called me out by name after defending the idea that low-income students should go to private and public schools for free or with additional financial aid that public schools do not have with government aid. His argument was, "Sorry, but in life, you need to work hard, Youssef, and cannot expect everything to be handed to you."
In the past, I would have immediately gotten defensive over the physical, mental, and spiritual labor I put into my schoolwork for the last four years to get me to the University of Chicago. However, I am happy and proud of myself for using my space in the discussion to get to know why many people agreed with him and share my perspective. I was not expecting to change the minds of so many people in one day. I just wanted to know that they fully understood the disparities that low-income students feel in higher education before making up their minds. This was especially important for me because I know that my fellow Bank of America Student Leaders will try to invoke change in the future. If I was part of helping them do that in the slightest, then it is a win for me.
"Enduring the upheaval of my daily life showed me I can weather any storm. After all, steel is forged by fire."
July 17, 2020
When I thought of my freshman year, I had so many goals and things I wanted to try. My final year of high school was totally upended thanks to COVID-19, so I've been reflecting on what I am looking forward to in my first semester. Initially, I was hoping to transition into the campus culture and the reputation of the school. However, now I am looking forward to having the campus culture and reputation adapt to me. As young voices, pursuing higher education, we are extremely powerful. I am ready to push reform and create environments of love, acceptance, and inclusion in all of the communities I am in on campus. Along with the anticipation to be in a classroom that the pandemic caused, I also feel empowered to pursue an education and keep learning.
This new ambition stems from my experiences, trying to navigate a global pandemic. Two of the most critical learnings quarantine has taught me that I will take with me how to find closure and be resilient.
Enduring the upheaval of my daily life showed me I can weather any storm. After all, steel is forged by fire. However, fighting through my problems could only get me so far. Eventually, I realized that finding closure is vital to successfully navigate the sea of conflicts I was experiencing. The problem was I didn't know how exactly to go about finding it. It was then when the simple answer arrived. To achieve closure, we need to say what needs to be said and do the things that need to be done. After all, there is no room in our lives for regret. The more I thought about how to find closure, the more I came to realize that I AM the legacy I decide to leave when history is playing out in front of me.
I am most nervous about a lack of stability when I start this fall. In mid-March, millions of students were given days notice to arrange ways to pack up their entire dorms and go back home months earlier than usual. It is hard to predict what state the world will be in at any point and what will happen in the coming months. I am worried at the thought of displacement and a halt to my education. To achieve success at UChicago, regardless of class format, I am taking classes now. I am a part of their Chicago Academic Achievement Program, which offers support to low-income students by being exposed to the style of courses at UChicago. The best thing I can do for myself is to continue to ask for help when needed.
"I always felt guilty of being upset that my graduation and senior year was canceled. I was invalidating my feelings. When I started to let my feelings really show and not suppress them, I quickly realized that it helped me see the positives to a virtual commencement."
June 30, 2020
Quarantine in New York City has looked a bit different these last few weeks. Within two weeks, NYC has moved into phase 1 and phase 2 of reopening. Residents have begun to act with less caution, and more people have left their homes. It has been three months, and I definitely share some of the same beliefs of the people who are being less cautious. I, too, am frustrated. I, too, feel drained. But mostly, I, too, care about the safety of my community. A mask has become a symbol of constraint and hindrance. That is why I believe it is important to change the narrative. I urge you all to let maks and extra precautions represent hope and possibility because when you abide by them, we are one step closer to this ending.
This week has been filled with a lot of emotions and stress. This is my graduation week. I cannot help but think about the oceanside view I was meant to have at the Ford Computer and what that day could have been. I would have said bye to some people I would never see again in my life, and reflect on my last four years in high school as I grew in mind, body, and spirit. For most, their graduations are bittersweet. However, mine feels bitter. I always felt guilty of being upset that my graduation and senior year was canceled. I was invalidating my feelings. When I started to let my feelings really show and not suppress them, I quickly realized that it helped me see the positives to a virtual commencement. I got to record my graduation speech as much as I needed because I was home. After 21 takes, it finally felt perfect. Additionally, maybe everyone listening to it on their couches and not in the boiling hot Ford Amputier in Coney Island will make them want to pay attention more and listen to my message. Just letting myself feel was the best way to keep paving forward.
My school tried planning two events to celebrate on what would have been our graduation day and last day of school. On our actual graduation day, our school organized a senior salute/drive-by and photoshoot option. On the last day of school, they allowed us to pick up our diploma cases, yearbooks, and senior awards. Both attempts were not approved by the department of education.
As a member of my leadership program, helping to facilitate these events, I was frustrated, confused, and tired. As a senior in our community, I was upset, overlooked, and heartbroken. When you try so hard to make something feel special, and it does not work out, all you can feel is mad at the world. And trust me, I was. I was looking so hard for answers to questions that have no answers. Or so I thought.
I recently came up with an answer to the “why?” that kept running through my head. I am lucky to have just graduation be the thing that is upsetting me the most right now. I am living in history. The odd thing is, history is taught so future generations can learn from it. But, I’m living through it now and learning from it simultaneously.
"For me to go to college is a hope for my family that I can end the generational poverty we have experienced."
June 16, 2020
Next year, I will be the youngest out of three to be enrolled in higher education with the intention to stay enrolled. For most first-generation students we fall amongst a notion that we will all go to college. However, going to college means so much to us, it means so much more to me. We cannot afford to “hope” we get the most out of it. We need to. I simultaneously have the pressure of my family's lasting disparities and my children’s success in my investment in college.
Something I have shared in past blog posts is my work with the PERIOD and Free Palestine movements. Highlighting the efforts we are making as organizations are so important especially in regards to the world right now. There are specific attributes that each movement possess that helps fuel my fight as an ally of the black community and Black Lives Matter. In regards to the PERIOD Movement, our goal is to highlight the disparities that women, especially low-income women, have to deal with. While also tackling systems that take away from our advancements including toxic masculinity and stigmas. In regards to the Free Palestine Movement, most of our work is to spread awareness in regards to the genocide happening in Palestine and the senseless killing of innocent Palestinians (mostly children). Furthermore, restructuring systems like the occupation that Israel has created.
My experience in these forms of social justice has made me all the more capable to be an active ally in the fight to end disparities and restructure corrupt systems. I quickly realized that each of these movements is intertwined and dependent on each other. With this determined mindset, we can change our own worlds and with the progression of our own worlds, we can change the entire world. I am so tired that fighting in solidarity also means fighting in loving memory. George Floyd’s death electrified the nation and sparked a fire that can never be dimmed.
I would like to share a segment of my graduation speech that I think masterfully sums up the call to action I felt in my heart and I hope everyone also feels. It is a line from “the novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” The conflicts in our lives that make us feel like we are suffocating and displaced from the roots we have created, in fact, teach us the power of resilience”. While writing my commencement address, I struggled to find the words that captivated my fight against adversity, appreciation to those that have helped me grow, and finding a way to find closure from my high school career. That is when I realized that I was trying to help my peers prepare to go out into the “real” world when in reality we watched the world stop before our lives and systems that were the cause of generation oppression and disparity be exposed. It is what we do with that ownership of our freed selves when we educate ourselves on these problems that depict our growth as a civilization.
"It is empowering to feel that you are writing your own narrative."
May 25, 2020
I am attending the University of Chicago this fall as a QuestBridge Scholar. Only 85 students in the entire country received this full-ride scholarship to UChicago. When pondering why I chose UChicago, it would honestly be easier to list what I did not like about the school. Because it would be a list of zero things. I received the privilege of attending the Young Leaders Summit this last summer and it was held at UChicago. I fell in love moments before stepping onto campus. The summit changed my life in four days and I could not stop wondering what UChicago could do for me in four years. I even wrote in my supplement that an old man walking down the street on campus crossed the street over to me because he saw me starring at his dog and he let me pet them. I later found out that he was the president of the school. The community already was so accepting and open immediately to me and my peers. That is a place where I can feel vulnerable but ready to flourish at the same time.
I have considered a career within a multitude of different fields. Although I have spread myself a bit thin in trying to expose myself to these fields, my passion never diluted for the work I was doing even if I was not sure if I would continue doing it. I hate the phrase “dream” job. I push myself to attain more of my ambitious aspiration but at the end of the day some dreams just stay dreams. I am someone who pours their all into their work, it is disheartening to work so hard and still come up short. That being said, I would not call it a “dream job” but an ideal destination. I would like to end my career in law in the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court. I want to become a Supreme Court Justice. Something about interpreting the law and setting precedents that will be followed for decades is extremely fascinating to me.
International Relations, Politics, and Law have been a lot of what I have consumed myself with this past academic year after realizing that I belong in this field. I have wanted to pursue multiple fields in the past, mostly because I just copied what my sister wanted to do. When I landed on Law and International affairs this was the first time I had not copied my sister. It is empowering to feel that you are writing your own narrative. This was a pivotal moment in my life because I had finally grown out of my sister’s shadow and was a big deal to me to feel like I have the capacity to make my own decisions. Specifically, I had really gotten passionate about social justice work and interpreting the law when I had my own part in changing legislation in two states. With the PERIOD Movement, I have worked on the public policy side to pressure legislators to end the tampon tax and make menstruation products available for free in all schools. It is so rewarding to impact the lives of people who have had to endure adversity. Furthermore, I have worked with Students for Justice in Palestine and really got into the Free Palestine Movement. I have considered it vital for me to bring awareness to the apartheid and genocide because I as long as I have a voice, I can stand up for those without one.
"I am ready to learn a lot about myself and have my passion and grit come out through my work."
May 14, 2020
This week I received a package from the Dell Foundation. Earlier in March, I was named as a Dell Scholar. I received the Dell Scholarship because Bottom Line offered me the opportunity, and I received help during the workshop. It was a huge surprise and definitely a highlight of my week to receive a package from them. It included a Dell laptop, which I desperately needed, and a Dell backpack and water bottle. Bottom Line helped me get this package by exposing me to the opportunity, editing my essays, and checking up with me throughout the process. I get to say I am a Dell Scholar, and it feels more solidified after this week.
My biggest challenge has been accepting the fact that I will not have all the milestone events I have been longing for. Every senior activity has been officially canceled since we are not going back to school for the remainder of the academic year. Part of me hoped that we could hold these events in-person if this all went away. I have gone through insurmountable all-nighters and long weeks because I have needed to work twice as hard as my peers throughout high school. I was never celebrated throughout that rigorous and brutal process, and now I feel like I never will be. However, this has also been a time for reflection. I am proud of my accomplishments, and I am proud I have done well. I navigated my way through high school by always keeping my aspirations in mind. I will not let this pandemic take away my narrative and the story I have written for myself.
My last challenge was in regards to how I could not picture my future and seeing what my first year at UChicago might look like. I feel like I have networked with the right people to help my transition, regardless of whether that transition is remote. I have learned to stop beating myself up for the added pressure and anxiety that has come with this pandemic. Everyone is experiencing it with me. That has helped me become more sincerely empathetic, and in the future, I know I will be all the better because of it.
My plans for the next academic year have not changed. If my first year is online or in-person, I will still be pursuing higher education at the University of Chicago. Hopefully, my motivation to set my foundation at the University of Chicago does not change as well if classes are moved online.
Something I have been working on, to pass the time, is starting a chapter of the PERIOD Movement on UChicago’s campus. My chapter at UChicago has been approved. I feel underprepared for taking a leadership role in a new community without stepping foot on campus. I have been talking to other chapters at institutions that are close to UChicago to get advice.
I am ready to learn a lot about myself and have my passion and grit come out through my work.
"I miss my teachers and friends. I was unknowingly walking down the hallways of high school for the last time. I never got a proper goodbye to the place where I had grown the most, failed the most, and flourished the most."
April 30, 2020
I'm excited to share that since my last post, a collaboration I had done with the PERIOD Movement was published! The PERIOD Movement has been fighting to take down the tampon tax in all 50 states, as well as, serve low-income women who do not have access to these necessary products all the time.
Before quarantine, I had taken part in a round table discussion with members of the PERIOD Movement to have an open dialogue about the work we wanted to accomplish. In the video, I discussed stigmas that come with having a period and how to mobilize people who do not have a period to be allies.
I've been struggling with picturing what my life is going to be like in the coming months. How might the pandemic impact my aspirations? I feel like we are always getting new information about COVID-19. It concerns me that states are starting to reopen when we have yet to understand what this virus is capable of.
I was accepted into a summer program at the Unversity of Chicago (which is the institution I am committed to). The program was canceled, and UChicago is looking for virtual alternatives. I depended on this program to help build my foundation at UChicago. Now that I will not be able to maximize all the advantages of the program, it is going to be hard for me to adjust to the rigor there. Now, I am nervous about the preparation that I need to feel prepared on my first day.
Considering that we have been dealing with a global epidemic, my teachers have been giving me a light course load. I have not found it too hard to adapt to remote learning, considering that I am only taking AP courses. The College Board cut many units from the AP exam, so my teachers have been transitioning to more review lessons. There is not any "learning" going on.
Through reflection, I see that my learning style is more hands-on. When I collaborate with my peers, through discussions, someone always sparks a thought in my head and vice-versa. So I rely on bouncing off ideas between people. That is something that just cannot happen through a screen.
I could use networking support. All I can think about right now are the next steps. I feel like I am ready to venture out and connect with more communities. Being in touch with students in Chicago or remote internship opportunities would help me feel more productive and take control of the narrative that this epidemic is setting for us.
I miss my teachers and friends. I was unknowingly walking down the hallways of high school for the last time. I never got a proper goodbye to the place where I had grown the most, failed the most, and flourished the most. I am a different person leaving Fort Hamilton than the person I was going in, and I wanted everyone that supported me to know that.
Feeling burnt out was something that had become routine. But now I have done the most reflecting I have ever done with all of this free time. Furthermore, getting a full night of sleep every day for more than a week is not something I have been able to do since I was born.
"Embracing empathy is the rudimentary basis of being human, and now more than ever is when it can do some good." We all can understand each other's struggles a little bit better now.
I am hoping the idea of human empathy can remain instilled in us. The world may become more beautiful because of it.
"Bottom Line has given me something to look forward to and something to keep pushing for -- my education."
April 17, 2020
My name is Youssef. I live in New York City, and I am part of Bottom Line in New York. I am committed to attending the University of Chicago next fall. I am aiming for a Master's degree at UChicago through a joint degree program, and I will be a part of their 2024 graduating class.
So far, all of my classes have moved to Google Classroom. We use that platform to connect through digital discussions, and all of our assignments are posted and completed through the program. A few of my teachers have also utilized Zoom in an attempt to have more enriching discussions and put some life into the dragged-out lessons on Khan Academy.
This change has been challenging. It's difficult to navigate this shift in such short notice. I am currently taking 5 AP classes, and the course work was rigorous while in class. Working on this alone with a screen has made the content harder to grasp.
One big win in my life is becoming a Bank of America Student Leader. It is an internship that is open nation-wide and has a 5% acceptance rate. I was given the honorable distinction and hopefully get to intern at a Bank of America this summer.
My biggest challenge has been my family life. Now that I've been home most of the time, I have taken a more active role as a caretaker to my brother, who has cerebral palsy, as well as managing general housework. It has also been mentally exhausting to do the same thing every day. I have been continuously stimulated academically for the last four years. It is upsetting and depriving that I do not get that same excitement to have discussions with my peers.
I had a lot of exciting things planned to wrap up my year. I had UChicago's destination overnight trip, where I could have met my future classmates for the first time. Additionally, I had the DC summit for the Bank of America student leaders, my senior awards night, and the Bottom Line Spring Banquet. All of which were canceled. The only workaround was with the Spring Banquet, and now it is virtual. Each cancellation felt like it took away from what I had accomplished, and all I had sacrificed to get to this point. It just feels tough for me to open up a new chapter without being able to close out this one.
Bottom Line has given me my future. Bottom Line, specifically my counselor Lucy, is the reason I am attending UChicago as a Questbridge Scholar. I will spend the rest of my life in debt to this program and all the better for being a participant. Bottom Line has given me something to look forward to and something to keep pushing for -- my education.
I need some reassurance more than I need support. That I had not mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted myself in an attempt to flourish in all the communities I was in just to be stripped down to a computer screen and no real interaction. I understand the concern for public safety, and I consider that a priority. That also does not mean that I do not feel defeated- as much of the world does.
I would like to urge everyone to try and embrace more perspectives. Embracing empathy is the rudimentary basis of being human, and now more than ever is when it can do some good. I am upset about all of my milestone moments being taken right in the moments of fruition. However, people are losing much worse than me, and I am grateful for what I have. It is time that we understand how these weeks of fear and nervousness are other people's years and normal lifestyle.