An Options Student Steps Out of the Shadows

A smiling young woman with straight dark hair stands in front of a blurred Harlem background
Lissette Barretto

When you meet Lissette Barretto, you walk away impressed.

“She’s mature beyond her years,” says Options counselor Amy Kirschenbaum. “I really enjoy talking with her. There’s a wisdom and a confidence you don’t always see in a high school senior.”

Her college applications, however, were in danger of being overlooked—due to her difficulties four years ago in navigating the city’s complex high school choice system. She faced this challenge on her own as a middle-schooler because her mother, a day-care worker from Ecuador, was unfamiliar with the system, and her school counselor was too overloaded to help.

Barretto picked twelve well-regarded high schools—and lost the lottery for all of them. At the last minute, she scrambled to get into a less rigorous institution. And that’s where she stayed, getting excellent grades and pursuing every opportunity, but tucked away in a place where colleges don’t come looking for star students.

When Barretto came to the Options Center this past fall, Kirschenbaum knew right away that she had to get her into interviews with college recruiters. That’s where she would truly shine Ð and the doors to good colleges and financial aid would spring open.

“I didn’t understand the importance of interviews but Amy really emphasized them,” Barretto recalls. “She set them up and told me what to expect. We did practice interviews, and she made sure I had my resume with me every time.”

While working on getting her into school, they also worked on paying for it. Kirschenbaum helped her fill out all the standard student aid forms, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Then they moved on to tougher ones, like Opportunity scholarships. Those are aimed squarely at students like Barretto: ones from underperforming schools and low-income backgrounds. They require a lot of additional paperwork Ð “W-2s, tax documents, everything!” says Kirschenbaum.

The strategy paid off. Now Barretto is choosing among several good schools with strong financial aid packages. Stony Brook and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are her favorites. And Kirschenbaum is still pushing on another door.  

“She’s been waitlisted at Syracuse and I’m working with someone in admissions there to try and get her off the waitlist,” she says. “I think it would be a great school for her!”

Without the kinds of support Options provides, Kirschenbaum says, students like Barretto can fall through the cracks Ð much as she did in the high school choice process. Some get into lots of high-priced colleges but don’t get the funding they need. Some fail to complete their applications and never even realize it. They often end up scrambling to enroll in community college, a path that may make it harder to reach their full potential.

When good students can fulfill their promise, our society and our nation are stronger. That’s what Options enables.

Barretto plans to study biomedical engineering. She discovered a passion for engineering when she joined her school’s robotics club. The interest in science developed a year or two later in her classes. After her undergraduate degree, she’d like to go to medical school Ð and use her skills to help people who don’t have access to advanced care.

“My family would visit Ecuador when I was younger and I would see the poverty people lived in,” she explains. “I’d like to move there and open a clinic because for a lot of people there, things like prosthetics are just not a possibility.”

But Barretto also knows she’s young and hasn’t had a chance to explore all the subjects she’ll encounter in college. She’s ready to change directions if a different future calls to her. “I’m looking forward to learning more about myself,” she says Ð “learning what I enjoy and what I really want to study.”

Whichever school she heads off to next year, she’ll have the Options college success program to lean on if problems arise Ð from academic challenges to family crises to financial issues. For now, Kirschenbaum says, Barretto is right where she needs to be.

“She just needed some help to guide her in the right direction,” says Kirschenbaum. “She has all the tools in place.”