In high school, I just did what I had to do to get B’s and C’s. I could do that without doing my homework, so I didn’t do homework. I didn’t push myself to be an A student because as long as I passed and graduated, being the top student didn’t matter.
I did want to go to college, though, because when I was 6, I promised my dad that I would. He died soon after that, but I wanted to keep my promise. Having an education meant the same thing to both of us: that I could use my knowledge to achieve my goals in life. One of my goals, partly because my dad taught me to write, is becoming a professional writer.
I was accepted into all six colleges that I applied to in New York City. I wanted to go to Brooklyn College to study journalism, but my mom wanted me to go to Medgar Evers College because it was closer to home. I got some federal financial aid money through both a Pell grant and a TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) award for books, transportation, and other expenses. But my mom was paying the rest, so I had to go where she said.
I took a multiple-choice placement test to determine what freshman classes I would take, and I aced it. In high school, I’d only gotten A’s on tests where all the questions were multiple choice. Seeing the options on multiple-choice tests helps me remember what I read or what the teacher said in class. I’ve always had trouble remembering what I’ve read.
I signed up for math, English, history, and freshman seminar, an introduction to college life. But almost immediately, I ran into problems.
One big problem was that I didn’t get my books until mid-October. The portion of my Pell grant that covered books didn’t come through until then. I tried to keep up by reading what I could at the library, but without being able to take the textbooks home with me to study, I fell behind in my classes.
My advice is to stay on top of your financial aid. Keep reminding the financial aid office that you need your money for books, transportation, and other expenses—not just tuition. Also, ask other students to fill you in if you miss class.
Another big problem was that I wasn’t used to studying. In high school, the only thing I studied was math because we got work packets to take home instead of a heavy textbook. But college math—algebra plus trigonometry—was so much more difficult than high school math. The only time I understood the work was when we did problems from the book and on the board.
I realized I needed help when I failed my very first quiz in math class. I was too embarrassed to ask the teacher for help. I wanted him to think that I really belonged in college. The free tutoring Medgar Evers offered was at the same time as my classes, so I hired a student tutor. I didn’t want my mom to pay for a tutor out of her own money because she was already going through financial problems herself. I decided to use the last of my money on tutoring sessions. The tutor helped me with word problems, which were giving me the most trouble. To my relief, I passed my midterm.
The hardest parts of the semester were the final exams. I would have to study everything from Day 1 because I had missed most of the work since I hadn’t gotten the books on time.
I really felt pressured now because if I didn’t pass the final, then I wouldn’t pass the class. In high school, you always got another chance to take Regents exams until you passed them.
In high school, tests were always given at the regular class time. But not in college. Math was an evening class so I thought that the exam would take place then, but it was in the morning. I talked to my teacher about it, and to my dismay he said there was nothing he could do about it. I failed math and had to take the class over the following semester.
I got a B in freshman seminar and a D in history. For English class, I got an “NC” (Not Complete) because of an essay that was missing. That didn’t sit right with me. Because my printer at home wasn’t working, I had e-mailed the assignment to my teacher the night before it was due. She claimed that she never received it.
I wanted to do better in the spring semester than I did in the fall so I got some help from the education specialist at my foster care/adoption agency. She is my go-to person for questions about registering for classes or anything else college-related. With her help, I registered for the spring semester; she told me which classes I had to take over.
I also made some sacrifices. In the fall semester, I had hung out with friends during my free time and stayed up all night playing video games. At the beginning of the spring semester, I sold my video game system to pay for subway cards and I stopped hanging out with my friends as much, so I would have more time to study. Without my friends or video games to distract me, I did get more studying done. Plus, I only took three classes, nine credits instead of 12.
Despite my new discipline, the spring semester didn’t go so well either. The only class I passed was English. For speech class, I had to prepare speeches and I was not ready for that. I was nervous because the professor was very strict and that made me uncomfortable. She was always criticizing the students’ flaws and making it seem like we didn’t know what we were doing. As for math, I just couldn’t stay awake because the class was at 7 am.
Many colleges, including Medgar Evers, require students to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to stay in school. I was close, but not quite there, so I was dismissed from school. I was disappointed in myself, and my mom was disappointed too. Most of all, I let my dad down. I had broken my promise to him, and I cried about that.
My first-year struggles made me realize that I had a lot of growing up to do to become a successful student. For example, I need to find my own motivation for going to college that is separate from what my dad wanted, or what other relatives tell me I should be doing.
I’m trying to separate out what I want from everyone else’s expectations of me. My uncle wants me to study law or “med’cine” and my mom wants me to “make something of myself.” All I keep hearing from everybody else is “job” this or “bills” that. I’m tired of hearing that, but I know I need college to meet my goal of being a professional writer.
Fortunately, I was given a second chance. There is a program at Kingsborough Community College called New Start that lets you enroll with a clean slate—a brand new GPA. I sent them my college transcript and explained my situation—that I was having trouble focusing so I flunked out.
Talking to my educational adviser and others made me realize that I might have some sort of learning disability. When I pick up a book and start reading, my mind goes blank. To be honest, the only type of book that doesn’t put me to sleep is a children’s book. I prefer books with pictures.
High school reading was different because we did most of the reading in class and were given writing assignments about what we read. In college, I would read the assigned pages at home but would not remember or understand them.
I thought that everyone had those same struggles. But they don’t, so I decided to get screened for disabilities and get help with my reading comprehension and with math.
It turns out that I don’t have any learning disabilities, but I did discover that my weaknesses are test-taking and study habits. To help me improve, I decided to take advantage of tutors and education specialists and seek out their help as soon as I need it. I also vowed that Facebook and video games could wait until after I’ve done at least two hours of studying every day.
My Second Chance
I’ve been in the New Start program for six weeks now. This time around, I scheduled my classes a month before school started instead of waiting until the last minute. I was appointed an academic counselor, and she told me what classes I was required to take. Most of them were the equivalent of the classes I took (and failed) at Medgar Evers.
A few weeks later, I took care of financial aid and got my money situation in order. I got money to buy books a week after school started, so I was in better shape for this semester. As for transportation, my mom reluctantly offered to buy me a 30-day metrocard for the first month as long as I paid her back. I even signed a contract with her.
So here I am Kingsborough Community College with a brand new slate. Four classes, 13 credits, and so far everything’s going smoothly.
Otis's Study Tips
1. Turn off your phone when you're trying to study.
2. Write down homework deadlines and test dates.
3. Don't schedule classes for times when you know you'll be sleepy.
4. Get a tutor before you're completely confused.
5. If you like to talk, sign up for classes with lots of participation.
6. Make sure you have all the reading material—and read it!
7. Don't get freaked out by big words; just look them up.
8. Always read the textbook!