By Maftuna Saidova

My journey from a high school student struggling to learn English to a first-generation college student happened because a lot of people believed in—and nurtured—my potential.

Now when I look back, I realize that even in those early years, when I felt like a stranger in a strange land, it didn’t take long for me to understand the power of having a strong network.

It all started with Ms. Marcell, my high school math teacher. She nominated me for The Opportunity Network, a program designed to help students succeed in high school, college and their careers. Although I did not even believe that I stood a chance I was accepted, and that’s how it began. Through OppNet, I learned the importance of asking for help, following up with contacts and thanking the people who advocate for you at every turn.

Then in 2013 my high school partnered with iMentor, a college success program that matched every student in my class with a college-educated mentor. That’s how I met Nan, and it completely changed my life. Working with and getting to know Nan has been a wonderful experience. We’ve gone through a lot together, and I can actually pin-point the specific lessons I’ve learned from her through it all:

1. Mentors believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself.

When I first met Nan, I faced many significant challenges that might seem daunting. But as my mentor, Nan had faith in me and our relationship. She worked with me every week, guiding me through the college application process and developing a study method that I still use today. Nan is the reason I was accepted to college. She also pushed me to improve my English and my writing skills. Those small wins gave me a big boost of confidence–I joined a bunch of other clubs at my high school and even become a peer tutor.

2. The importance of advocating for myself.

I’ve had to learn to do this in many places, and some may be surprising: my school, my community and even my home.

At times when I worked towards my college goals in high school, I faced a cultural clash that left me feeling uneasy and unsure of what to do. Having a dream of wanting to work in the United Nations as a human rights officer is not the most suitable when you are an Uzbek girl with expectations dangling over your head. Most Uzbek girls my age are expected to get married and have a family; an education and a career come after all of that. Ever since I was young, my mom and dad wanted me to focus on “girl” things, but after I realized what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted more.

Having to explain my “rebellious” dream to my parents was tough at first, but Nan told me to be patient and take it step by step. All the while, she encouraged me to continue pursuing my dream of becoming a human rights officer for the United Nations. She helped me realize that I needed to speak up for myself, my dreams and my goals. I know my parents want the best for me, and I know they support me, but expressing my own interests was a skill I needed to build. Nan was the one to keep me grounded and on track, with the belief that I could persevere.

Knowing that I have Nan, OppNet and iMentor as part of my support circle makes me feel like I’m setting myself up for success. I’ve already had a few once-in-a-lifetime opportunities come my way through this amazing network of people. For instance, last year I had the chance to meet First Lady Michelle Obama at her Beating the Odds Summit at the White House. I was incredibly nervous to go to Washington D.C. and put myself out there. On my own, I can say I might have been too apprehensive to attend, but Nan pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone.

3. When you open yourself to the unknown, you also open yourself to opportunities.

Being uncomfortable might be new and scary but look what comes from it. In front of a room full of kids like me, Mrs. Obama talked about her experience as a first-generation college student and how she had a lot of mentors herself. Listening to her speak, I realized that all successful people were at one point just as scared as I was. I reflected on my experience with Nan–without her guidance I might not even be in that room. I left feeling inspired and ready to take on the challenges of being a college student.

Today I’m a freshman at City College of New York with a 4.0 GPA, and I’m loving college. All of my hard work is even making my parents a bit more open to understanding the path I have set for myself. This year, I applied to an international program to study abroad in Europe. I’m excited about the opportunity, but the best thing about it is that my parents promised to support me if I’m selected. I think all this potential is finally winning them over.

When I first came to this country, I felt voiceless because I didn’t know English and powerless to do anything about it. But with the help of all of the people who have come into my life, I have not only stayed on course, I’ve started to chart it for myself. I’m really proud of that, and I have definitely become a better person in the process.

About “GenDIY”

eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)–how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love-on TheHuffingtonPost and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:


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