Credit: Courtesy of IMAHNI CHEEKS

The year 2020 is a moment in time that most believe will go down in history as a year that all of Gen Z will be telling their grandkids about.

It is also the year I decided to explore a new side of myself and jump into what would soon become my spectacular college journey.

Growing up as an Afro-Latina in Oakland, I learned from a very young age that education means more than just a degree. It means a potential payoff for all of my parents’ efforts. It means success and access to positions that were typically kept away from people like me. But in reality, no matter how hard my parents worked to get me to this point, I was on my own, just like many other first-generation college students,

Coming to terms with my newfound reality was difficult because I had no clue as to where I should even begin. Upon reflection, I knew that my higher education could not only benefit myself, but also my family and community. That is why I set my eyes on striving to become a role model, a social justice advocate and a mentor to future first-generation students.

To accomplish this, I started entering new spaces where I met inspiring people who came from every walk of life. During an internship at the Center for Youth Development Through Law, I not only learned about the law, but I gained wisdom on how to be strong and confident in my skills. It also helped me to complete college financial aid and scholarship processes.

Then I became passionate about social justice by joining a political campaign advocating for Oakland City Council District 7. The political campaign taught me how to try new things and work hard to create change, which led me to join the Latino Student Delegate Council. There, I made many connections and had an amazing mentor named Daniel Guzman of the Oakland Unified School District Office of Equity. He helped me develop my writing skills by challenging me to think critically and by analyzing my work as I wrote my college essays.

Lastly, I got into student government, which helped me see how I could be a student leader. I was also able to find all the resources my school had to offer and received help from organizations such as the College and Career Center that helped me with financial aid, scholarships, essays, and even took me to go see the schools I was deciding upon.

I believe all of these amazing experiences during my senior year are why I was accepted and will be attending the University of San Francisco in the fall. My advice for incoming students would be to apply for schools and scholarships in addition to joining clubs.

When I was applying to colleges, I heard so many discouraging statistics about the low acceptance rates of colleges, which caused me to stress about whether I would even get in. Even if you don’t get into the top colleges of your choice, just remember that all college journeys are not all the same, and that is perfectly OK. And community colleges can be another good pathway.

Regarding scholarships, it is never too early to apply, and if you get rejected, please take those rejections lightly. I applied to more than 20 scholarships and got denied 19 times, but the one that said “yes” just happened to be the best of all.  This Oakland Promise scholarship has not only allowed me to go to school debt-free, but it also provided me with a mentor.

This is amazing because, as a first-generation college student, having someone with the experience of what college is like to guide you is really alleviating. I recommend that any Oakland high school student apply.

Overall, I advise anyone who is like me to look for those support systems, whether it be at school, home or your community. Find your resources and the people who will help you when you feel like you are lost and can’t find your way. Also, get out of your comfort zone and explore because you will witness a world that you never knew was there.

I go by the saying “Yo no se ma​​ñana”  which translates to “ I don’t know tomorrow.” You should take a leap of faith because we are all shining stars. And no matter where you come from or who you are, your destiny is greater than what you might believe.

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Imahni Cheeks graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 2021 and will be starting at the University of San Francisco this fall. More of her story can be found here.

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