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Elmhurst group helps South Asians get ready for college

South Asian Youth Action works to prepare students for life after high school.
TimesLedger Newspapers

Many immigrant families face anxiety when preparing their children for college. Some families, which have children who will be the first in their family to pursue higher education, are woefully unaware of the process.

South Asian Youth Action, which has served the Elmhurst area for 16 years, aims to prepare students in Queens for college while providing enrichment and leadership programs to foster skills and attitudes that are conducive to success in higher education. This includes tutoring and SAT prep, as well as engaging with local schools to support and mentor students.

I spoke with SAYA!’s executive director, Udai Tambar, on programs offered by SAYA! as well as the state of college preparation for college-bound youth in Queens.

SAYA! serves an important function as a “safe space” for South Asian youth. Tambar noted that the need for a space, both physical and metaphorical, is critical. SAYA! maintains a youth lounge at the center, stocked with books, computers and other resources.

Tambar noted that having this safe area gives youth “the strength to navigate other spaces as well.” He stressed that the goal of the programs is to cultivate well-rounded individuals and, in the process, introduce the program participants to musical activities and chess.

A critical aspect of SAYA!’s social outreach is its Support, Action, Guidance and Enrichment model. Tambar noted that though some students in the leadership program were active in social causes, they were also struggling in high school and were not on a path to succeed in college. Others who did well in academics tended to underachieve when applying to colleges, with some entirely unaware of the process, such as taking SAT exams.

Due to the complex needs of young adults, the SAGE model supplements leadership training with academic tutoring.

One of SAYA!’s more prominent programs, Challo College!, responds to deficient college preparation and invites students on college tours with overnight stays at campuses for high school juniors and rising seniors. This has included tours of Ithaca College and SUNY Binghamton and will include upcoming trips to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Anxiety over allowing children to stay in a dorm at a university is a common trend for high school-aged South Asians’ parents, so the trips serve to allay some of these concerns. SAYA! begins these conversations with parents early, familiarizing them with the process and the idea of allowing their children to live at a university before they apply.

Tambar said, “It’s not that your parents don’t want you to do well … they may not know anyone else who has gone away.”

SAYA! works to bridge gaps in social support that it says have eroded due to budget cuts. Tambar said a large number of South Asian students attend overcrowded high schools, where they cannot receive the individualized attention they need. He said there are many “young people with tremendous potential who are unable to navigate the process,” particularly those with no one at home to help them learn how to apply for college.

Efforts also include helping students learn about applying and securing financial aid. Ultimately, cultivating a culture of achievement from the time they enter SAYA! to college marks a successful application of the SAGE model.

Parents who wish to enroll their child in one of SAYA!’s many programs can complete an intake form at saya.org and a staff member will contact them.

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