Nishi Akter has one main goal in her studies at Fordham University: “I’m doing all this as a way out of the cycle of poverty.”
Born in Noakhali, Bangladesh, Ms. Akter came to the United States with her family in 2013 and settled in the Bronx. She struggled with the abrupt shift in language and culture while also navigating troubles at home, where money was tight.
Despite the challenges, she excelled academically. When she was awarded multiple scholarships and a significant financial package to attend Fordham, Ms. Akter, 18, was excited not only to begin studying for her medical degree, but also to develop a sense of community.
“There’s over 140 clubs on campus, so I was really happy because my high school didn’t have that,” she said. “My main priority in coming here was that I’m just going to immerse myself as much as I can.”
Since starting at Fordham last year, Ms. Akter has taken on leadership roles in groups like the Commuting Students Association and the Dean’s Council, and she decided to change her major to economics. She hopes the degree will position her well for job opportunities and also help her better understand a world that she sees as revolving around money.
“I’ve always been interested in learning about how money works and how governments can help the impoverished,” said Ms. Akter, who has witnessed wealth disparity firsthand. “It’s also personal because I feel like anytime I want to do something, the one obstacle is money.”
Though she was able to secure funding for her education, and later an off-campus apartment, Ms. Akter is food insecure.
“I don’t have reliable, consistent meals every day,” said Ms. Akter, who rarely eats more than twice a day.
Though embarrassed at first to ask for help, she was ultimately connected with Abraham House, an affiliated member of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, which is a beneficiary agency of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. Abraham House was able to provide her with three $250 gift cards using money from The Fund, and a place to receive a weekly meal.
Ms. Akter was able to buy food staples like bread and cheese in bulk with the gift cards, offering relief that she would have nourishment to fall back on.
“I just want a better life. I want to move past this, so I focus on school as much as I can,” Ms. Akter said. “I want to be in a position where I can help other people like myself, because people don’t understand.”
She continued: “On the outside, everything may seem fine, but you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
The challenges of expenses while pursuing a college degree also caught up with Nadirra Hakeem.
Starting at the College of Staten Island in 2020 was the beginning of realizing a long-held dream. Her father had imparted the value of higher education. So much so that when Ms. Hakeem had the opportunity to be adopted by her foster family, she decided to pass so that she could receive financial support for college offered to her as a foster child.
“I was always going to go,” Ms. Hakeem, 20, said of pursuing higher education.
She had worked hard to complete her final year of high school virtually from the Bronx apartment she was sharing with younger siblings and a foster mother. She managed to end the year strong and moved into her dorm.
But as Covid precautions required activities to be curbed, Ms. Hakeem found herself losing motivation.
“I was on campus for about a month and a half, and I was becoming severely depressed very quickly,” she said.
The emotional weight of attending college full-time in an isolating environment, while also working 40 hours a week in an Amazon warehouse, became too much. Covid disruptions continued and Ms. Hakeem could not complete the semester. When she dropped her classes, it felt like she had failed.
To help her mental health, Ms. Hakeem got a dog, Storm, that she is training as a service animal to support her as she copes with post-traumatic stress disorder. She also decided to take a break after the spring semester to get her finances in order.
But the interrupted fall semester had left her with a $5,398 bill that she couldn’t afford. Unsure of what to do, Ms. Hakeem spoke to her mentor at Hope Leadership Academy, a teen center run by Children’s Aid, a beneficiary agency of The Neediest Cases Fund. Children’s Aid covered the cost using money from The Fund.
Now living in a new foster home where she and Storm can be together and working to save money for an apartment, Ms. Hakeem is feeling more hopeful about her future as she prepares to reapply to college next year.
“I’m not done fighting my fight,” she said. “If I have resources and people that stand behind me and support me, then I’m not going to give up.”