A Shining Star: Khodia Cisse

It’s a country of opportunity, if you believe it is.

YAES & Jobs-Plus Graduation 2016 6.9.2016 191

Khodia grew up on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, with her mother and several siblings.

At age sixteen, she began to develop unexplained pains in her left hip.  A condition that at first appeared to be temporary, began to take over her life. The pain grew worse and worse. She soon found herself homebound and unable to attend school.

Despite visiting several doctors and getting second—and third—opinions, none of them could properly diagnose her. But one thing was certain: if she didn’t have surgery, she might lose her ability to walk completely. With little access to quality medical care, she would need to make a choice: go to the United States for surgery or possibly never walk again.

I was afraid to go out and people always asked me, ‘What happened to you?’ Doctors couldn’t even answer my questions. I once met a girl in Senegal who’d had a hip replacement…and she was still limping. I wanted to walk but was scared that it was not going to be done correctly.

In her pursuit to find a doctor who could perform the surgery, she also was in search of something else: a place where she could finish the education that she’d missed out on. Because she could no longer walk without the assistance of crutches or a walker, and had missed so many classes due to medical appointments, she never finished her secondary education.

I suffered a lot since I was 16. My only destination was the hospital and I missed a lot of classes and ability to walk,” Khodia says of her life in Senegal.

When she came to New York, she spoke next to no English. Like the clothes she could fit in her suitcase, she arrived in the United States with only a few words. Despite this, she spent her days in the local library perusing books and magazines, and utilizing their computer lab, all in an attempt to learn English.

When I came into this country, I knew only 3 phrases, which were, ‘Thank you’, ‘My name is Khodia’, and ‘I’m from Senegal’.

It was at this time that she had a hip replacement, which was a success. While recovering, she located an ESL (English as a Second Language) class, investing her free time in studying and familiarizing herself with her new language. When she felt she was beginning to make progress, she identified another challenge for herself and rose to the occasion: obtaining her high school equivalency diploma. “I realized that I needed an education if I wanted to be in this country,” she explained.

An opportunity came in the form of a flyer she discovered in the library for the Young Adult Education Services program at East Side House, just down the block.  Without any bit of hesitation, she immediately visited ESH to see what the program was about. She sat down with one of the Advisors and by the time she left the building, was signed up to take the entry placement exam. East Side House offered her the opportunity to learn the skills needed to succeed in obtaining a high school equivalency. Two weeks later she found herself sitting in class.

Even after taking ESL classes, Khodia’s spoken and written English was still limited; getting her high school credentials would be an uphill battle. She was placed in the lowest level of our education program, designed for students who read below a 9th grade level.

Despite the challenges they laid ahead, she never hesitated. “I was never afraid to speak,” she says, self-assuredly. Indeed, Khodia became her own best advocate, always seeking to take on new challenges that would take her a step closer to her goals.

“The program runs from 9 to 3. She’d arrive before the staff got in, at 7:30, and would stay until 5pm when staff left for the day,” remembers YAES Senior College Advisor, Ricardo Almonte. “Teachers would give packets of work to the students to practice their skills. If there was no homework that day, she’d take textbooks to photocopy and bring them home for practice,” Almonte recalls, laughing at how persistent she was.

Her persistence paid off. After a few months of non-stop studying, her English had improved enough to begin the classes needed for her to finally earn her diploma. If she read a word she didn’t understand, she’d highlight it and look it up in the dictionary. When people used vocabulary she didn’t recognize, she’d stop then to ask what the word or phrase meant.

Ten months after beginning classes at ESH, Khodia was now on her way to creating a future for herself. The skills acquired in class were sufficient enough for her to take the High School Equivalency exam—and pass!

This month, Khodia joined her fellow classmates on stage and served as the student speaker, reflecting on her experience leading to this pivotal point in her life.

But her journey will not stop there. She is studying for the CUNY entrance exams and hopes to begin her college education at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the fall. She has dreams to become a doctor, and bring her services to where there are needed most.

“I want to help people in Senegal who don’t have money. There is a bad medical system there—a shortage of doctors and no malpractice laws. I want to make Senegal better…”

Join us in wishing Khodia the best of luck as she pursues her dreams!