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Excerpted from a speech written by Brendis Gonzalez, an alumna of and teacher at a NYC Outward Bound School in Washington Heights, for our 2018 gala

My name is Brendis Gonzalez, and I graduated from WHEELS, an NYC Outward Bound School in Washington Heights, in 2012.

Today, after a bit of a roundabout journey, I’m back at WHEELS teaching third grade in a dual language classroom.

Mine was the first graduating class at WHEELS. The College March was actually first conceived at WHEELS, and we were the very first class to march. It has since become an annual NYC Outward Bound Schools ritual. In fact, it’s become a national movement: this year, 2300 high school seniors from 25 different schools marched in College Marches around the country.

I remember my own College March, which, as I mentioned, was the first College March ever. Leading up to the march, I was feeling a complicated mixture of pride and anxiety. I’m the daughter of immigrants, and neither of my parents went to college. I was going to be the first in my family to go and sure, I was excited, but more than that, I felt overwhelmingly uneasy. My mom and dad loved me and were so supportive, but they didn’t really know anything about the college application process, much less the college experience. And it felt like there wasn’t anyone else in my Washington Heights community who did, either. I felt really alone, and really scared.

Brendis marching in her own College March in 2011

Let me set the scene: Over 90% of students at WHEELS identify as black or Hispanic, which reflects the neighborhood where our school is located. And, to be honest, people in our neighborhood didn’t necessarily expect us to go to college. Washington Heights is primarily a neighborhood of immigrants, and my graduating class was mostly made up of kids who were the first in their families to even think about college, much less attend. My parents weren’t the only ones who didn’t know much about college. Most of the kids I was graduating with were in the same boat.

So when my classmates and I marched out of our school that day in 2011, wearing our College March sweatshirts and holding our college applications in our hand, our path lined with all the younger students from our school cheering us on, it felt like a revolution! We were saying “Hey Washington Heights! We’re going to college! And so are the students graduating next year, and the year after that! Because we belong in college!” The College March helped me to name, recognize, and celebrate what was not necessarily understood in my home and neighborhood: that college was a real option.

I am grateful to have been part of a movement that allowed me to see that I too deserved to be in college and be celebrated for that achievement. And I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to inspire all the younger kids in my school, who have since gone on to march in their own College Marches. When I graduated from WHEELS the spring after the College March, even though I was scared, I was really excited to be headed to Skidmore College. I knew I was ready, not just because of the College March, but because — like all NYC Outward Bound Schools — WHEELS had prepared me academically for college, and helped me discover my strengths and taught me to persevere and succeed beyond the wall of the school and boundaries of my neighborhood.

It took me a few tries to find the right major during my four years at Skidmore. I started as a business major, then tried environmental science, finally settling on social work.

As college graduation approached, I wasn’t sure what direction to go. What kind of career did I want? I had this urge to do something meaningful, maybe something revolutionary, but I just couldn’t figure out what it could be. Feeling lost, I went to visit the place where I always found answers before: WHEELS.

I had visited WHEELS many times before, but this visit felt different. This time, something felt right, the way finally finding social work had felt right, the way dropping my college application into the mail had felt right. I knew that my revolution was supposed to continue at WHEELS, but this time as a teacher, not a student.

This spring I’m celebrating my second year of teaching. My third graders are amazing — there is truly more in them than they know. And I’m making sure that each and every one of them knows that they belong at college, if that’s where they want to be, and ensuring that they are challenged and supported to achieve at their highest levels. And I’m helping my Washington Heights community continue to support and celebrate our college-bound students, not just during the College March, but throughout the year. NYC Outward Bound Schools has a 99% college acceptance rate, which means that 99% of graduating seniors have been accepted to college — now that is truly a revolution.

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