How SEO Changed My Life

Diversity Outreach Intern Jahnay Bryan ’23 poses while on a trip to South Africa

By: Jahnay Bryan ’23

My appreciation for being a Sponsor for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholar began instantly. I was surrounded by avid poets, debaters, track stars, readers, and dancers, and still found common ground. Everyone wanted to be there for a reason, whether it was enriching their minds, helping their community, and/or advancing their society. I was awed that SEO could put together an amazing group of students where the amalgamation of our differences strengthened our community.

SEO taught me about commitment. After being accepted through a rigorous process, it was again emphasized that we would dedicate the Saturdays of the next four years to SEO, plus the next eight years of our life. But even when the homework became harder, the weather became colder, and the hours became longer, there were advisors, program managers, and faculty who cheered us on — constantly reminding us of our abilities. After all, you were never alone. Many of us at SEO had felt alone before. Some of us were the despised class superstars, the students who were translators at parent-teacher conferences, or the children who did not see themselves represented on TV, in books, or in professions we dreamed of. We were sometimes alone in places we called our home/community. And that was how the SEO community was different. No one left anyone else behind because there was a strong community in the shared sense of struggle and difference.

While I would advocate against injustices in my community, I did not realize that I was not advocating for myself. The importance of asking for help, taking initiative, and communicating were transferable skills I learned during my time in SEO. Through the various interactions with adults to ask about possible opportunities, and following up with meaningful conversations, I learned how to be remembered in the spaces I enter and the basics of networking. As a result of advocating for myself, I was nominated by SEO for a selective study abroad opportunity studying peace, politics, and human rights in South Africa for a summer. I interviewed prospective SEO scholars, represented SEO in conferences with New York City principals, and represented SEO Scholars at an annual event. As the gains of adopting these skills became apparent, I started advocating for myself outside of SEO. I began to embrace when I did not know something; I asked questions, requested help, and inquired about supplemental resources that could be used to advance my understanding. I started building an empire of connections with adults just by introducing myself and creating conversation. These are skills that will follow me throughout my collegiate years and beyond as I join clubs, study abroad, interact with professors, and begin my career.

Practice makes proficiency but not perfection. To help close the achievement gap, SEO provided supplemental classes ranging from grammar to critical math to Princeton Review SAT prep. It was at SEO that I received my first ‘C’ grade. The teachers were genuine and caring, but did not let their emotions override their grading. Thanks to the office hours they provided and the constant communication they offered, I transformed a setback into a chance to take control of my educational experience. Additionally, SEO established a safe space for difficult conversations ranging from educational inequities to microaggressions. I had engaged in intellectual conversations with my older sister, but had never met peers interested in conversations about medical breakthroughs, society, and politics. SEO Scholars are not just smart, they are intelligent. Their ability to broaden their perspectives, think critically, and deeply analyze discussions aided in the development of my intelligence. These enriching conversations added power to our community, and taught me there is space for all opinions.

A group of SEO Scholars post with a 2019 balloon backdrop

Even after graduating high school, SEO has numerous ways to make sure scholars never feel alone. A College Persistence Advisor (CPA) can help scholars with problems ranging from emotional to educational to financial throughout college. SEO also connects younger and older scholars from the same postsecondary institutions and connects the 13 other SEO scholars who are attending Cornell University in Fall 2019. Thanks to these practices, underrepresented SEO scholars like myself are finding safe spaces and tackling college with growth mindsets.