Blessin Green balances work with school. She pays her own way. She knows what she wants, and she's going for it.
But it's hard: after school finishes at 3:30 p.m., she heads home, and then off to work for a 5:45-to-9:45 shift. She gets home and turns to her schoolwork.
“I sit down to do homework until 1 (a.m.) and get up and do it again,” she said in a recent interview.
For the 17-year-old, life has always been hard work. When she was 6 years old, her mother was killed, she said; when she was 10, her father was killed. She moved in with her sister but fell out and moved in with a friend's family. Now, she lives in an apartment with roommates, working part-time to pay the rent and the bills.
Later this month, Green will graduate from Schenectady High School before traveling the world on her way to Syracuse University, where she plans to study mechanical engineering on a full scholarship. Her interest in engineering started in eighth grade, when as part of a school SeaPerch team she and classmates built water-faring robots and competed against other teams.
“Soldering and putting things together, that’s just my niche, what I feel I was meant to do,” she said.
For a recent class project, she had to redesign her kitchen, finetuning the design on the computer before building a prototype by hand.
“Every day I would go in and put my music in and just go,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s work to me.”
School has long been a place for Green to redirect the struggles of her life.
“School was just my focus, that was my way out,” she said.
But senior year has been a struggle all its own, she said. Her living situation was unstable; she said her motto this year was “if it's not one thing, it's another thing.” But the support network of teachers and counselors she established helped her through, as well as a fear of letting down people who look up to here.
In September, Green will join a growing roster of area students who have spent a gap year after graduation to sail the world in a program called Class Afloat. Chris Trow, of Glenville, sponsors the students in the program.
The voyage will take Green to over 20 countries around the world – from Russia to Brazil, Amsterdam to Canada – as she takes classes on marine life and astronomy and explores local cultures. She and the other students in the program serve as the ship's crew. She'll celebrate her 18th birthday in Italy.
“Traveling has always been something I wanted to do,” said Green, whose furthest travels so far have taken her to South Carolina. “I felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
After finishing the Class Afloat journey, she plans to start at Syracuse in fall 2020, where she has earned a major scholarship as part of the state’s Higher Education Opportunity Program.
After school, Green said she hopes to travel and work as an engineer overseas, working on projects that serve communities in need. She said her prime motivation is serving as a role model for family, friends and other people around her.
“When I try to motivate myself with my own future, my own success, it doesn’t work,” she said.
Many of Green's classmates won't join her at graduation, others have dropped out of school long ago. But Green said any of those students could make it to where she has – if they can find that goal that motivates them, that reason that drives them.
“I don’t feel I’m extra special, I feel everyone has this inside of them, they just need a reason to keep going,” she said. “Sometimes they didn’t know that reason… you have to go out and look for it.”
Green is scheduled to share her story at Schenectady’s graduation later this month; she actually insisted on it, petitioning school officials for a speaking slot.
“I felt like I can relate to a bunch of people,” she said of her desire to address her fellow graduates. “I want at least one person in the crowd to feel no matter what they went through… I just want them to know despite all the trouble you’ve been through, don’t let your past define you.”
Wakeem Medina and a group of friends last summer pooled funds and converted a home closet into a small recording studio – a sanctuary of sorts.
Medina said he spends hours in that studio, drafting lyrics and recording songs, drawing on the pain of his childhood and the challenges of his life to produce something new, something that can bring joy.
“I write and I write as long as I can; I’ll fall asleep in there,” Medina said. “It’s the only place I can gather my thoughts. With everything hurtful going on it’s the only place I can gather myself.”
He writes about what he went through as a child, and he also writes about the “pain of last week,”
“The music makes me better as a person,” he said. “I love writing everything. I wake up and write something little by little.”
It’s not always easy, though.
“Sometimes that doesn’t always work out for me, because sometimes I get stuck,” he said. “But I keep going because my love for music won’t go away.”
Medina plays the piano and makes rap and hip hop songs. But he said he is into the classics too - “like Elton John” - and is interested in exploring all types of music.
“I want to strengthen myself to do every bit of music genre there is,” he said. “It may be challenging, but I want to make myself to be a better musician.”
His mom died of lung cancer when he was in elementary school and said he has struggled with it ever since. “She made me the man I am today,” he said. Medina also lost a family member to suicide and struggled with his own depression as a young student. When he entered the high school, he said, he had no friends or interest in most anything to do with school.
“At first, I thought I was never gonna see 12th grade year,” he said. “My motivation was low, I was failing as a student, as a friend, in most things.”
But athletics helped connect him to school and a support community; coaches saw his potential as a distance runner, and he joined the track and cross country teams when he got to high school. His passion for music grew, and he looked up to the student leaders of the cross country and track teams. He found his motivation.
“I wanted to change myself, I realized I shall not go through my life being the way I am now, because I will not get anywhere,” he said. “I had to step up.”
After graduation, Medina is headed to Herkimer County Community College, where he plans to study music industry and run cross country. He said other students should never fear reaching out to people in the school.
“Reach out,” he said. “I feel reaching out, talking to teachers, talking to anyone can get a lot off your chest, and help you open up to a smile.”
He said Schenectady holds a special place in his heart and that he hopes to spotlight musicians and artists in the area.
“They have no light on their shadow,” he said. “Schenectady is the one place in my heart I can’t leave alone. This place may not be the best place in the world, but it’s my best place.”
Mya Gore knows what she wants to do after graduation: more school. At least until she can earn a pair of masters degrees in human services and psychology.
“I want my masters,” she said.
Gore wants to be a social worker, helping and supporting teens struggling with the hardships she also endured. She is still finalizing where she will start her college studies – she'll have to start with her bachelors degree.
“It’s really important to have those people who care,” Gore said. “I care about all the people around me.”
Gore can relate to the teens she hopes to one day support; she is one of them. Her mother has struggled with addiction throughout Gore's life. When Gore was young, her mom left her at a daycare run by her aunt and didn't return.
“I’ve survived neglect,” she said. “My mom just couldn’t take care of me.”
As a young child, she didn't know what to think about the neglect. So she thought the worst.
“I was very confused, I had questions like "'Does my mom like me?'” she said. “I never knew what an addiction was.”
The challenging home life spilled into Gore's school life; she said she was a difficult student in her earlier years.
“I acted out my whole elementary (grade years). I feel bad for those people who were my teachers,” she said. “Of course, they didn’t know what was going on; I didn’t really know what was going on.”
In high school, a counselor connected with Gore. Gore studied cosmetology and got involved in more school activities.
“She was just there,” she said of her counselor. “That’s what I want to be for every kid on my caseload. She didn’t just say she cared, she showed she cared."
In her senior year, she realized that what she wanted to pursue in life had been sitting right in front of her the whole time: help youngsters make the most of themselves.
“Once you know what you want to do in life, it gives you real ambition and reason,” she said.
Gore said she has worked hard to get her emotions under control.
“I’m glad I have pretty much a 95 percent grip on my feelings,” Gore said. “I’ll get the other 5 percent pretty soon.”