Op-Ed: How an apathetic high school student became a straight-A college student

Sara Elashaal (Courtesy of LaGuardia Community College)

When I was in high school, I never saw myself going to college. I never considered myself a good student and didn’t have high expectations for myself. I struggled to focus, never completed homework or “tried my best,” and broadly just wasn’t interested. I even had a frustrated teacher (rudely) tell me to drop out and get a job working in fast food since I was unwilling to try in school.

However, my dad was adamant that I go to college. I realized that my options were limited — especially since I never took the SATs and with my low high school grades.

I had a friend in the nursing program at LaGuardia Community College, and she encouraged me to check out the school. I was like, OK, why not. I’ve heard good things, and it’s close to where I live in Queens, NYC.

I liked LaGuardia’s size — not too big or small. I’ve known people who went to bigger community colleges, and they seemed to get lost in the shuffle. I wanted somewhere with a close-knit community where I could find faculty and staff to help me make decisions about my college journey and guide me along my path — where I wouldn’t feel like a number. As a person of color, LaGuardia’s vast diversity appealed to me. I knew I wouldn’t feel out of place.

Its affordable tuition was another benefit. Between Pell and TAP, I got money back in my pocket (around $1,800 a semester) that I put toward sustaining myself — meals, laptop chargers, etc. Thankfully, I lived at home, so I didn’t need to pay rent.

I began as a nursing major because my friend suggested it, and it seemed like I could make good money as a nurse. I think we all go through that phase. I started taking nursing classes and eventually realized that it was not the path for me. Science and I didn’t click, even though I was really trying for the first time in my life. This frustrated me, and I started thinking that I just wasn’t good at school.

I took a step back and considered what my friends and family were telling me: with my outgoing, strong personality, I should pursue a major in communications. After some research and further self-reflection, I decided that I could excel in a fast-paced, ever-changing industry like public relations or marketing.

Once I took my first communications class at LaGuardia, I realized this was what I wanted to do. The class was Public Relations Campaign, taught by Dr. Shaunee Wallace, where I learned what it would be like to work day-to-day as a public relations professional. I met one-on-one with Dr. Wallace about my future goal to use my public relations skills to bring recognition to marginalized and oppressed groups. She sent me information about internship opportunities that aligned with my values and interests. I landed one of these internships, working on the LaGuardia Community College public relations team, where I drafted press releases, interviewed students for profiles and did media monitoring.

And once I switched my major to communications, I went from a D student to a straight-A student. I never thought it was possible.

Meanwhile, some people I knew outside LaGuardia kept badmouthing community colleges. They would “tease” me that community college isn’t real college and that it would take me five years to graduate. This was demoralizing and hurtful. From my classes, it sure felt like college to me! Meeting my professors’ high expectations was challenging and demanding — beyond anything I’d experienced in high school. My professors helped shape me and gave me confidence as a student, and they seemed to care sincerely about my fellow students and me — checking in with us throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and helping us find our passions and then investing in us so we’d have a good start in our chosen fields.

And I graduated in two years! I was able to transfer all 60 credits from LaGuardia to The City College of New York, where I’m working toward my bachelor’s degree. Now I genuinely enjoy school. I’m taking as many classes as I can to graduate in 18 months.

Going to LaGuardia was the best decision I’ve made. I credit LaGuardia with building my self-confidence, and faith in my intelligence and ability to succeed at school. It’s also where I found out what I like and don’t like, and where I created meaningful connections for my future. I don’t regret anything because everyone has a process.

My advice to other high school students would be to never be ashamed of the steps you decide to take to better yourself, and make sure that with whatever steps you take that you’re doing it for yourself, not for someone else.

Written by Sara Elashaal. Elashaal graduated from LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY in 2021 with an associate of arts degree in communications with a concentration in public relations. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in advertising/public relations at The City College of New York. She resides in Maspeth.