Yasmin's Success Story

In her own words, CSF Alumna Yasmin shares the struggles she faced and how CSF provided the support she needed to pursue her dreams.

“I’ve had an incredible amount of opportunities in my life through and because of education. But I still have to remind myself of how far I have come, that I worked for it, and that people care.”

Like many CSF Scholars, I started from the bottom, and now I’m here. But I didn’t do it on my own. I was able to thrive with the support of caring individuals and College Success Foundation. It was what others saw and nourished within me that paved my path for success.

I came from a background of very stark contrasts: not only in skin color and culture, but also in privilege, socioeconomics and educational access. I was born in 1984 in Bangladesh. My father was a 47-year-old upper middle class white American who took a 12-year-old Bangali bride, a product of extreme poverty.

While my father is part of the less than 1 percent of the world’s population who hold a PhD and comes from a highly educated family, my mother is part of the over 20 percent of the world’s population who are illiterate. She is from a small fishing village where most were subsistence farmers who sent their children to work in order to survive. The year I was born, about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s population made $1.50 a day.

This power imbalance led to my parents’ arranged marriage. My grandfather believed that America was where we could access the education that would help us get out of poverty and live a better life. So he agreed to marry his youngest daughter off to a man more than 30 years her senior and send her along with 6 additional family members to a land they didn’t know.

I was four years old when my family moved to America. But my father did not send anyone to school. Instead, he isolated me and my family on a land-locked farm in Grays Harbor County, Washington and forced everyone to work. It was only when my aunt committed suicide after a little more than a year that the authorities learned what was happening and freed us from captivity. 

But while some struggles resolved, new ones emerged.

My mom was still illiterate with two small children and no skills to land a job. While at first I felt free in our new apartment, I caught on to the way my mom’s lack of education brought her shame and made her vulnerable to abuse. I saw how she handed more money to the cashier than necessary because she didn’t want to admit she couldn’t calculate the exact amount. And I saw how people in line scoffed at how long she took to pay, especially when she used a combination of food stamps and cash. I didn’t understand why people treated others like this. I also didn’t understand why my mom didn’t like me asking about it.

I can still feel the sting of my mom’s slaps for talking too much or asking too many questions. But the sting would always follow with her own shame. “Just study,” she would say. “That is the only thing that will change our life.”

Throughout my early childhood, I remained curious about the way the world worked and interested in the books that created a sanctuary in my imagination. But I was constantly grappling with the inconsistencies and hypocrisy around me. I didn’t understand what distinguished the “haves” from the “have-nots.” American ideals instill in us that hard work and determination is all you need to succeed, but I saw poor brown and black people who worked their hands to the bone in a world where success looked easy. Where people didn’t talk about oppression or the way that education had been elusive to entire communities.

We operate with the notion that we all start with the same chances, but we don’t. Of course I wanted to be successful, but I still felt deep down that success didn’t look like me.

It became difficult to stay wide-eyed and positive. By age 13, I was angry and confused. I caught on to everything, and the noise of inequity and trauma echoed loudly in my head. I stopped asking questions, concluding that life simply was not fair, and I felt powerless and unable to cope. My love for education fell to the wayside. I needed to survive, and I was gripped with the fear that I would never be able to escape the things I couldn’t control.

My relationship with my mother deteriorated into physical harm and a toxic home life, and I began to run away. By the time high school started, I had already lived in five different homes: two foster homes, one relative’s home, and two homes of friends with caring families.

One of those friends had a mom named Lauri. Lauri was a professional and a single mother with a house of her own and a car that didn’t break down. Talking to her was so easy. Every question I had been holding in came pouring out, and she seemed to have the answers.

Lauri and I talked about what I wanted to do when I grew up. She laughed when I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer. She knew I didn’t really know what that was beyond “a job where I can talk a lot and wear a suit.” Then she slipped me her phone number and said I could contact her if I ever needed anything.

A few months later when I found myself on my own, alone at a gas station, I called Lauri. She picked me up, and I lived with her for an entire year. She set an example for me and shaped me profoundly.

Eventually I had to move on. I tried to move back in with my mom at the beginning of high school, but her comments about my future were no longer positive. Any optimism about academic possibilities turned into anxiety and anger over why I would never live up to her expectations.

At age 14, I moved out of my mom’s house for the final time. I was on a mission, though at the time, I had no idea what it was. I was 100 pounds of pure Napoleon complex.

After jumping around during my freshman and sophomore year, I eventually moved in with an aunt in Tacoma, Washington and started my junior year at Foss High School. I still wanted to go to college, but by that time, a college education felt out of reach. So I got a job and started to earn money. I worked every shift I could and remained focused solely on meeting my basic needs.

Then a teacher reached out and asked if I had thought about college. I didn’t know how to respond. How could I explain that, in my dreams of the future, I looked like one of those smart, executive lady lawyers? You know, the ones with the crisp, sharp suits and flawless hair. I felt silly thinking about how to explain that. I had never put on a suit.

My reality was the $3 discount rack at the little shops in the mall. You know, the tops from Rave or Ross that look stylish but don’t survive a wash?

The teacher was delighted at my simple “yes” and then asked what colleges I planned to apply to. I panicked. I didn’t know you had to apply. Why didn’t I know that?

I shook my head and admitted I had no idea. He sat me down and asked politely if I had spoken with anyone about my hopes after high school. I shook my head again, feeling the weight of shame and ignorance on my shoulders. Who was I supposed to talk to? How could I explain that I was already struggling just to make it to the bus every morning and that school lunch was usually my main meal of the day?

Then he mentioned College Success Foundation and the new Achievers program. They helped those with college potential, and he told me that I was a prime candidate.

But I struggled to believe him. Why would I be a prime candidate? I didn’t participate in any extracurricular activities. I sold hats and shoes at the Tacoma mall. I didn’t take any AP courses because with all the different schools I had attended, I had a difficult time just getting all the necessary credits to graduate.

But the next thing I knew, I was connected to a CSF counselor who helped me apply for the scholarship, and I was accepted among the first cohort to receive the Achievers scholarship in 2001.

CSF saw something in me that I had forgotten about. They saw someone who wanted to achieve but just couldn’t quite connect all the dots. All the reasons why my story embarrassed me became signs of resilience. They understood that, if given an opportunity, I would never give up.

But life was still happening. I bounced around some more. My senior year was mostly spent working two jobs and hanging out with the few friends that I could relate to. Friends who would share a couch me when we had nowhere to go.

Every morning was a struggle. I was tired from working nights and would loathe having to get to class. But I thought about my scholarship. I was not willing to lose it, so I kept showing up.

My CSF mentor helped me to apply to college, and I was accepted a few months later. Finally, I had something to look forward to. I felt that I had found my way out. I had no idea what that meant, but I felt it in my bones.

CSF helped keep me on track to successfully finish high school with the academic and emotional persistence that supports college success. After many sleepless nights finishing homework and grumpy mornings, I made it to graduation. Thanks to CSF, I felt ready for the transition from high school to college.

Once I got to college, I didn’t know what to expect. My initial reaction was that I didn’t fit. I kept an off-campus job to get the items that many parents sent as care packages. I would go to Target and fill my basket with things that I wished someone would send me, arranging them in a way that appeared as though someone thoughtfully put them together. It sounds silly, but I so desperately wanted to feel that I belonged.

CSF helped me navigate through the early years of college so I better understood the rigors ahead and the supports available. They were there to help me register for classes when I didn’t understand what a registrar’s office was. I didn’t want to ask where things were because I was worried that my ignorance would expose me as a fraud. But I felt comfortable asking my CSF mentor those questions, and I remain incredibly grateful for the answers and support.

My CSF mentor also connected me to other CSF Scholars on campus who I could openly talk to. We formed a social group and supported one another.

I still encountered obstacles. My mom got sick, I transferred schools, and I had to take some time to work and support my younger siblings.

But I graduated from college. And with my diploma in hand and my CSF color cords draped over my gown, I graduated into the next phase of my life. One that allowed me to hold my head up high again. I was once again the wide-eyed, inquisitive child, and I was ready to take on the world. I can still feel the freedom of looking at all the opportunities this world had to offer. This was the first step in living my best life.

But law school was still a pipe dream. Then shortly after graduation, one of my fellow CSF alums invited me to attend a workshop put on by CSF. After spending the day writing, listening to stories of challenges and triumphs, and speaking to CSF staff, I gained the confidence I needed to start the application process.

Thanks to CSF, I had a bachelor’s degree and the support I needed to know that I could make that leap. That I deserved to pursue all my dreams.

I went on to graduate from law school and am now a licensed attorney in Washington state. I sit in the boardrooms filled with people who don’t look like me, advocating about public policy with people who don’t often share my perspectives or experiences. But I know that there are more coming along with me. We are changing these rooms and conversations one student at a time.

I want to thank CSF and all my mentors for giving me and so many others the chance to engage in shaping our world and vision of what the future holds.

I am a reflection of the investment you can make in others.

I am a reflection of the investment you can make in yourself.

I am that smart lady lawyer in my sharp suit.

Some of us started from the bottom, but now we are here, creating our own destinies and reclaiming our right to an education.

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