Class of 2016 Voyageur College Preparatory alumnus and Wayne State University junior America Ali Yahya reviewed her trip to Washington, D.C. for the National College Access Network's advocacy training session and public briefing for Capitol Hill staff. Staff and students learned why NCAN is focused on two top federal policy priorities to best serve our students: fixing FAFSA and restoring the Pell Grant. Students and staff discussed their pathways to higher education, including challenges with the FAFSA and the search for an affordable college.
America Ali Yahya (left) with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (center) and Ashley Johnson (right), executive director of the Detroit College Access Network, on Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of DCAN.)
As a person coming from an underprivileged and underrepresented city, the last thing I would expect is to be offered a chance to represent my city at a summit in Washington, D.C. Subliminally, I knew my answer and genuinely wanted to attend, but at the time I was hesitant since ventures like these are rare to those who share my background. It’s the type of probability that is only dreamt of. Yet, deep down I knew I could not pass up the chance to represent my city. With my family’s blessing, I packed and then departed for my trip to Washington, D.C. alongside Ashley Johnson, executive director of Detroit College Access Network.
Although this was only a 48-hour trip, the lengthy days made our time in Washington, D.C. feel spacious enough to achieve almost every task on our list, which included training's, meetings with our representatives, and touring landmarks and museums. Our list consisted of training's that taught the importance of properly articulating one’s personal experience, or on this occasion one’s story, whenever we meet with legislators. Another part of our list comprised of meetings with several of our legislators during our second day in Washington, D.C. As the student representing Detroit, I hoped to fully convey the numerous aspects that prevent our students from applying to, attending, thriving in, and graduating from college.
In more detail, my mission was to figure out how break down and explain every basic opportunity that students like myself have been deprived of, express the different levels of our struggle to legislators, and clarify that our right to our own American Dream has been invalidated. Continuing, Ashley and I were influenced to include the strife of our friends and neighbors who bear the same weight of invalidation merely because they had an encounter with the criminal justice system, are part of the Dreamers Act, or even have difficulty completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Alongside the deprivations, these groups are left with paying out of pocket or simply not applying to, going to, or completing college. After taking a step back and truly recognizing the data behind these findings, it impassioned me to research more about the cause and take back as much knowledge as needed in order to advocate in my city. The familiarity of the data to my own experience was too keen to ignore.
On the second day, we collected and scripted our plan and presented the data accordingly. We met with several of our legislators’ staff on college accessibility, and in Detroit’s case of college inaccessibility, and that gave headway to my story that I crafted that morning. My story included a struggle with the FAFSA application, competing for college acceptance and scholarships, enduring microaggressions, transferring to a college closer to home, and having to pay out of pocket for textbooks and supplies. Today, I still struggle to keep my head above water and will have to for the rest of my college career. All of these exist as outcomes of the inadequate education system in my city, the countless deprived opportunities, and many unsaid aspects that students have been without for years. After explaining with as much detail and sense of urgency as we could, we were met with compassion and support from each legislators’ staff, leaving Ashley and I confident and optimistic.
The entire trip was a highlight to my semester, but there are a few aspects of it that I would like to emphasize. The main highlights of the trip began with our walk through the many landmarks and getting to experience the intensity of the national memorials first-hand rather than from outdated history textbooks. Such memorials were The Washington Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial, The Korean War Veterans Memorial, The World War II Memorial, and my favorite, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Although there was a chill in the air, the warmth felt from gazing in awe at these structures was immense, and I have not felt more patriotic to my name and nation. The next highlight of the trip was when Ashley and I were surprised with a visit from Congresswoman and longtime Detroiter, advocate, and community organizer Rashida Tlaib! For those who know my character, it was a tearful encounter and was made sure to be documented. Yet, we were also surprised by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she just so happened to gracefully walk by the result of our tearful encounter. She must have noticed that we were Rashida’s guests (wiping our tears blew our cover) and allowed us to take a picture with her as well. Without a doubt, these two encounters are completely ingrained in my memory and are the absolute peak of my trip! Lastly, the final highlight of the trip was having time to partially tour the National African American Museum of History and Culture, where we were able to learn so much more than any history book can possibly offer.
As the 48 hours in Washington, D.C. came to an end, and Ashley and I arrived back in Detroit, I became empowered and motivated to continue the community organizing I’ve participated in for many years. I am America Ali Yahya, a Yemeni-Muslim American, the daughter of immigrants, a Detroiter through and through, and a first-generation college student. Although my college experience has been anything but easy, I am currently studying Social Work and Public Health at Wayne State University and am on track to graduate. Additionally, I am a member of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network located in Detroit, and their motto has never made more sense or rung more loudly in my mind than now: “Nothing about us without us.”