The College of Staten Island (CSI) welcomed First Star Academy students, family, and faculty members on June 9 to kick off the summer portion of the program.
First Star is a non-profit that aims to improve the lives of children who have experienced abuse or neglect. Since 2011, First Star has focused on making sure that the foster students in their programs are involved in higher education. One of the most jarring statistics is that less three percent of foster youth receive a bachelor’s degree. First Star focuses on instilling the importance of education in order improve their lives.
At the event, CSI President William J. Fritz discussed the program, noting that “… success in College is particularly important for students from families who do not have college degrees themselves. They face many obstacles.”
First Star collaborates with colleges and universities and creates programs and curricula for foster children in order to familiarize them with the college environment and increase their life and academic skills. First Star has collaborated with prestigious universities all over the country, including the University of California, Los Angeles; The George Washington University; and the University of Central Florida.
Since last February, children in the program from all over the city have visited CSI on one Saturday. This was considered the first phase of the program. Next, program participants live on the CSI campus for one month in Dolphin Cove, the College’s apartment-style luxury residence halls.
This second part of the program seeks to intensify their learning of social, academic, and life skills.
After the attendees enjoyed some popcorn, healthy snacks, and activities, CSI Vice President for Student and Enrollment Services Jennifer Borrero made some opening remarks.
“As Charlemagne the God says, ‘Opportunity comes to those who make it.’ And you’ve created an opportunity for yourself by actively participating in this program. Take advantage of all it has to offer.”
President Fritz talked about how CSI was honored to host a First Star Academy and that the CSI campus offered the best of “both worlds” by being so close to the city and offering a traditional college campus experience, and stated, “I think you’ve come to the right place.”
The First Deputy Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, Eric Brettschneider, also spoke and gave some the students some comical and practical advice. He told the story of his brother, who worked hard toward the end of his high school career in order to enter the University of Miami. After getting upset when he was declined, Brettschneider’s brother demanded to speak with the President of the University. After his father got on the phone and asked the university to review his application, he was approved. Brettschneider’s point was that even when people are confronted with results that is displeasing, they should still try to reach their goals, no matter what.
National Director of First Star Academies Paige Chan then spoke to the students about what they should expect, helped them to understand just how important the program is, and told the students that they are collectively a “family.” She also mentioned how First Star students “have an advantage over others” because of their college readiness.
“No one does it like New York does,” she said. She also told the students that she trusted them to get what they want and achieve their goals. A ”Wall of Support” board was also created by CSI staff with messages posted by faculty and staff from various departments welcoming the First Star Academy students.
Next up was Yanik Bruno, who is a foster child who is enrolled in the First Star CSI Academy. She told her story to the audience, discussing how she was unsure about enrolling in the academy or whether she should just get a summer job. She went on to explain how proud she was of herself and her fellow students for enrolling and attending, and for making the right choice.
The final speaker was the Director of the First Star CSI Academy, Senemeht Olatunji, MSW. Olatunji oversees the overall program on behalf of CSI and she has a long history of involvement in social causes and education. She spoke directly to the students, providing them with words of wisdom and encouragement. “We have spent the last four months commuting on and off campus, getting to know each other, celebrating individual successes, and supporting one another during difficult moments. You are all the most brilliant and dynamic group of young people.”
Vice President Borrero wrapped up the event’s remarks by thanking everyone in attendance and invited both the parents and children to enjoy the bouncy castle and other activities available. Borrero said that “CSI can create the best experience possible for these youth.”
Summing up the event, Senemeht said, “What is important today is that those who are standing here recognize this moment. This is not just a kickoff, but a rite of passage—a ceremonial celebration that marks one phase of life to another.”