Photo of the summit Hicks attended in D.C.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Dozens of the top students at Ithaca High School every year are the sons and daughters of professors at Ithaca’s world class colleges.

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“I was taking more advanced classes, and those are the people I was seeing all the time,” says Siarra Hicks, 18, of Slaterville Springs. “Just knowing they have all the extra support I wasn’t getting was hard. Sometimes, I was thinking, ‘How can I even compare with them?’”

Hicks, the daughter of a local handy-man and stay-at-home mom, says she knew her parents always expected her to go to college. But then she was confronted by the process itself: Rapidly approaching deadlines, scores of administrative obstacles, something called “FAFSA.”

Siarra Hicks (provided picture)

“I was kind of looking at everybody and everybody was getting everything done,” Hicks says of the college admissions process, “and I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing.”

Now she does: On Aug. 29, Hicks will begin at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The oldest of five siblings, she is the first member of her family to go to college.

“I really like the location and think it will be a really great opportunity, being in D.C.,” says Hicks, who plans to study psychology. “They gave me the most financial aid as well, which was a big factor because my family is very low-income.”

Hicks says her parents “really pushed education” on her and her siblings. The results paid off: Hicks played basketball for all four years, was president of the IHS African-Latino club and was a member of the school’s honors society.

“Neither of (my parents) liked and they don’t like the situation they’re in because they don’t have the skills they could have gotten in college,” Hicks says.

Another big factor, Hicks says, was the IHS “AVID” program — a group of about 30 students who are also seeking to become the first in their families to attend college. Having that support system, Hicks says, gave a crucial network for navigating the college admissions process.

“It definitely would have been a struggle” without AVID, Hicks says. “I would have felt alone — we were all each others’ support.”

Photo of the summit Hicks attended in D.C.

Earlier this summer, Hicks went to D.C. for a summit led by Michelle Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan. She listened to the First Lady speak on a panel and even got to shake her hand.

One moment in particular stuck out to Hicks.

“One of my favorite parts of the summit was when (Michelle Obama) said her guidance counselor told her she was reaching too high when she said she was applying to Princeton,” Hicks said. “She said, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you you’re reaching too high.’”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.