Morris Park resident Lisbeth Peralta came to America five years ago not knowing any English. Today, she is set to become the first in her family to attend college.
Peralta, a senior at DeWitt Clinton High School, 100 West Mosholu Parkway, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. She told the Bronx Times that life on the island was quite different than in the Boogie Down. Coming to New York was a big culture shock for Peralta. According to Peralta, the Dominican Republic is more laid back and there is a much slower pace of living. Additionally, many people back home are friendlier and don’t work 24/7. Ultimately, life was very different for her here.
“I had always envisioned New York to be a really wealthy place,” she said. “But when I moved here, I saw there were so many areas of the Bronx that had been forgotten. I never thought there would be poor parts of the neighborhood, but there are people here struggling, just like everywhere else.”
With everyone at home speaking Spanish,0 the biggest challenge was overcoming the language barrier.
“I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of people who spoke Spanish in my neighborhood and at my school, which helped me feel more comfortable,” she said. “But there were still instances when I had to step up for my family and use the small amount of English I knew at the time to help translate things for them, which could be difficult.”
As life early on in the U.S. was difficult for Peralta, she credits her success in school to a team of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in middle school. They helped her learn English and took her on trips, so she could get to know New York better.
“I think that played a really important role in helping me adjust to the culture here, because there are so many other things you have to learn, other than just how to speak English,” Peralta said.
What really changed everything for Peralta was the Student Success Centers (SSC). SSC is operated in partnership with Good Shepherd Services, which is staffed by a cohort of peer leaders, or successful upperclassmen who are trained to support other students in college preparedness, applying for financial aid, finding an internship and participating in community service. SSCs not only help students navigate the stress of the college admissions process, but also give peer leaders valuable leadership experience and a sense of ownership over the program.
Peralta first heard about the SSC in ninth grade, but couldn’t apply or go through the interview process to be a peer leader until 10th grade. She signed up the following year and since then SSC has changed her life.
“Since the most important part of being a peer leader is helping other students, the SSC has taught me how to be more empathetic and supportive,” she said. “I also used to be a pretty shy person, but the SSC helped me step up to become a leader. Overall, I feel like I have better future plans because of the SSC. It helped give me direction in my career and let me explore a lot of different career paths.”
Now, a year away from going to college, she and her classmates at SSC help other students prepare for higher education. They assist with the college process by planning virtual workshops and events, and teach other students about the importance of having community service and internship experience, and how to prepare for the SAT and apply for financial aid.
According to Peralta, the students she mentors have all told her how grateful they are for her help.
SSCs are supported by the NYC Department of Education. As a result of the pandemic, major budget cuts led to the closure of four SSCs during the 2020-2021 school year, while many others had to significantly reduce programming. However, this did not stop Peralta and her classmates from mentoring students.
While Peralta had a lot of family members who were affected by COVID-19, being a peer leader and wanting to be a good role model to the students kept her going.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, since everything was virtual, and one of the biggest challenges was keeping in touch with students,” she said. “It’s easier to connect with them in person. But the pandemic also made working at the SSC even more important, because it was a time when a lot of students needed the extra support. For example, we helped students research community service opportunities that were still available during the pandemic.”
As she looks forward to college next fall, Peralta is still in disbelief of where her life is. To come from to not knowing any English to being the first person in her family to attend college is a surreal feeling, she said. She said she would be remiss if she did not thank her parents for all of the support over the years. When she was a child, they helped her with her homework every night and spoke with her about her future plans.
Her goal is to study social work and hopefully attend Columbia University.
“I’m paving the way for my younger sibling and cousins,” she said. “I do feel a lot of pressure to succeed though, because the spotlight is on me and I don’t want to let my family down. I want to make them proud.”
Reach Jason Cohen at email@example.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.