“There’s nothing left for me there,” said Reshma Jaigobin, a 21-year-old immigrant from Guyana, reflecting on her homeland.
Before coming to the United States, she had to hide her true identity, pretending to be someone she wasn’t. Reshma is gay and with Guyana’s conservative culture this was taboo.
“Homosexuality is frowned upon there like in most societies” she said.
For Reshma, it would take nearly two decades and thousands of miles before she would eventually find her home and community at Guttman College, an innovative Robin Hood-funded institution in New York City.
“Since I was a kid, my parents painted this great picture of America and they told me, ‘You’re going to be there someday and you’re going to have many opportunities that do not exist here.’”
The daughter of farmers, Reshma looked forward to one day moving to the United States. When she was fourteen, that day finally came. Her grandmother sponsored her family and they moved to Queens.
Coming from Guyana, New York City was a big adjustment.
“I got lost a lot — lost with myself and lost literally around the neighborhood,” she remembers. “I didn’t feel comfortable talking to people.”
Though she had made it to the United States, she was still uncertain about her new surroundings and what others would think of her if she came out.
“I had a hard time in high school. I couldn’t be myself so that’s why I was resistant to making friends,” she said.
Reshma wasn’t the only one who had to adjust to a new life. In Guyana, her parents had been rural farmers, growing crops and selling their vegetables in town. In Queens, her parents took jobs working as janitors in a mall. As Reshma grew older, they were at a loss as to her future.
“They don’t really understand the education system here because it’s different than in Guyana,” she said. “So I never had someone teach me what college could lead me to because my parents didn’t know.”
In high school, her college counselor suggested she apply to Guttman Community College. When she initially visited Guttman’s campus, she was still uncertain of her future and wasn’t completely sold. But enrolled anyway, making her the first in her family to ever attend college, let alone graduate high school. Her father had dropped out of school early to take care of his parents, and her mother only learned to read and write.
“I came to Guttman because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” she said.
Once she began attending Guttman, things really began to change for Reshma. There she found the support, guidance, and community that she had never had before.
“I came to college and it opened my eyes,” she said. “Guttman had the support system I needed.”
The first new CUNY in more than four decades, Guttman’s mission is to dramatically boost graduation rates by reimagining the community college curriculum and experience. Guttman has a 49 percent three-year graduation rate compared to roughly 10 percent at CUNY’s other associate degree programs.
The school offers comprehensive support with staff and peer advisors. First-year students are required to attend full-time and are expected to participate in an orientation and a two-week summer program. There is also a mandatory curriculum for freshmen and no remedial classes, which eat up valuable financial aid dollars, but don’t count towards graduation credits.
“In our first year, we had Student Success Advocates. My friends and I call them the bridge from high school to college,” Reshma explained. “In our second year we have career strategists and we call them the bridge from Guttman to a senior college. There’s always someone there to point you in the right direction and help you out.”
With this strong sense of support and community, Reshma not only grew academically, but also socially and emotionally. She found the strength and confidence to come out.
“When I came out I felt more like myself. I felt like I wasn’t lying to anyone anymore. That’s why I love New York and I love the US. It makes me feel safe with my sexuality,” she said. “I feel safer here than I would have back home.”
When she came out to her parents, she was surprised by their reaction. They were generally supportive.
“My mom resisted at first, but she didn’t kick me out or refuse to talk to me about it. She took it pretty well,” she said.
At Guttman, Reshma would eventually meet her girlfriend and that’s when things really began to change.
“She was the one who opened me up to everything,” Reshma said.
Her girlfriend was running for student body president. Inspired by her, Reshma ran for student body secretary. They both won.
Looking ahead, Reshma is eager to begin the next chapter of her life.
In the fall, Reshma will head to Queens College where she will major in sociology with a minor in urban studies. There, she will be part of the first class of the new CUNY LGBTQI Student Leadership Program that cultivates students to become leaders in the LGBT community.
In just a few years, Reshma has come a long way. From a shy, quiet girl who “didn’t really care about school,” she is now a confident leader in the LGBT community who cannot wait to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a PhD.
By: Eugene K. Chow
Photos: Alberto Reyes