Before they were even five years old, Zyriah and her twin sister had lost their father. Only a few years after, their older brother passed away, then their aunt. Their mother, left to raise the girls alone, always instilled in them that education was their key and gateway to all opportunities in life, when she passed away suddenly, that lesson lived on.
Growing up, Zyriah was always told that she could do anything and go anywhere if she got a good education:
“My mother never finished high school, so she wanted to make sure that my sister and brothers and I graduated…and go further than she did,” Zyriah explained.
She and her twin sister, Zezinni, took their mother’s advice to heart, began a friendly (sibling) rivalry to see who could earn better grades. From a young age, both girls pushed themselves academically, were always punctual, and had impeccable attendance.
It was 2012 when Zyriah first learned of East Side House during a presentation given to her 8th grade class about a high school that was opening in the South Bronx, the School of Tourism & Hospitality (STH.) Both she and her sister liked what they heard, and curious about the new school, applied—and were both accepted.
Ms. Robinson, the girls’ mother, was well known and active in their Bronx neighborhood. She worked with local teens, served on their building’s Tenant Association, and coordinated community service activities, such as food and clothing drives for the holidays. When the girls began high school, Robinson soon began serving on various committees and working side by side with school and ESH staff.
The girls’ decision to attend the School of Tourism & Hospitality had proven to be an excellent fit for the whole family. While the twins continued to blossom socially and academically, Ms. Robinson has also found her own niche at the high school, where she won over staff and kids alike. Students looked to her as a second mother, a role model, and a confidant.
Zyriah, meanwhile, was hard at work in her new high school, seeking to keep up the reputation that preceded her as a motivated student who was serious about her education and future. Things were going extraordinarily well for her and Zezinni, who were earning high grades, making friends, and mentoring younger children in East Side House’s after school programs.
While many teens struggle to see their future, Zyriah was remarkably self-assured about her educational trajectory:
“I always knew I was going to college…that was always something that was certain to me,” said Zyriah.
For Zyriah, her college search began freshman year, when she was given the opportunity to partake in the campus trips ESH arranged for eligible students. She was psyched to explore the various city, state, and private universities that East Side House took her to visit.
Unbeknownst to her, Zyriah’s faith and determination was about to be challenged in a way nobody could have ever expected.
In May of Zyriah’s junior year, the STH community was rocked by a piece of heartbreaking news: Mrs. Robinson had suffered a heart attack at home and passed away. Rather than collapse under pressure and grief, Zyriah made a pact with her sister that no matter what, they would excel, graduate high school, and go on to college.
There was nothing stopping her and the death of her mother only added fuel to the fire that was Zyriah’s desire for success. But this was not the end of hard times for her.
Despite enjoying academic success, Zyriah would experience yet another devastatingly loss: her best friend, a young Bronx teen, was killed suddenly in an accident. All of these consecutive losses of life shaped her perspective and now seeing how life could be short. Her belief is that you just have to keep pushing forward despite what life throws at you. Instead of breaking her spirit, every death of a loved one has propelled her forward to want to achieve more.
The East Side House staff, including a Director, Counselor and Advisor, whom the girls were particularly close with, would play a crucial part in supporting them during these difficult times. In addition to moral support, the Counselor was able to assist Zyriah with navigating college applications and financial add process in the absence of their mother.
“They were serious about school and even when dealing with something as great as the loss of their mother, they only missed two days,” recalls an ESH Director. “We had that openness where whatever she was going through emotionally, we were able to talk about it and prevent it from affecting her school performance.”
The year ended with a silver lining. Zyriah would learn that she was no longer just one of the top students in her class—her high grades positioned her as the top student; she’d be the Valedictorian.
This past June, Zyriah, along with her sister Zezinni, were among of the School of Tourism & Hospitality’s ever graduating class. Both girls were honored with an award given to students who have faced significant adversity yet didn’t let it be an obstacle. As a tribute to Mrs. Robinson, the honor will now be officially named the Catherine Robinson Mountaintop Award, to keep her dedication to academic success and community pride alive.
This fall Zyriah will attend SUNY New Paltz, where she hopes to go into the medical field. She plans to go into a profession where she is in a position to help others and change lives, the way her mother touched the lives of everyone she met. Mrs. Robinson would be extremely proud to see all that her daughters have achieved and will achieve academically.
We wish Zyriah the best of luck in college.