“I Too, Am, Harvard” is an inspiring project by one student who highlighted the stories and voices of 63 black Harvard students. Similarly, this photo campaign is a platform for John Jay College SEEK students to voice their stories about negative or stereotypical remarks made against them.

Our voices in our classes sometimes go unheard by our professors, and our educational abilities among non-SEEK students are often times questioned.

This campaign represents our voices. We are standing up and saying WE ARE SEEK.

We are not stupid. We are proud of who we are and what we have done–despite what so many have said to us otherwise.


When I first developed the idea of a photo campaign on the behalf of SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), I was on a mission to find John Jay College SEEK students who shared a similar experience to me when I first entered college.

I thought that these students would come to me, because word of mouth in the student body has always worked towards my benefit. But I quickly realized that in order to get students to open up and tell me their stories, I had to go to them first and tell them my own story.

People questioned my IQ level and assumed that I was broke because I spent all my money on Jordan’s, drugs, and alcohol. Just like the photograph of my friend above, my experience in SEEK consisted of negative perspectives and misinformed opinions about a group of individuals that the naysayers knew nothing about.



Please note this specific photograph above does not represent all of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York’s (CUNY) faculty and staff. SEEK students have been mentored and supported by many professors. But sometimes we still feel labeled and misunderstood by the ones who are supposed to be helping us the most.



Translation* The SEEK Program is for students with lower academic standards.” – Friend.

This is a common perception of SEEK students. But did you know that SEEK is a higher education opportunity program at the senior (four-year) colleges of CUNY? John Jay is one of those senior colleges.



The program originally began at CUNY in 1965 and was signed into law by the New York State legislature in 1966. It was established to provide students who demonstrated academic and financial disadvantages access to a pathway to higher education.

Yes, sometimes we have less money, but that doesn’t mean you should call us poor. And yes, sometimes we have struggled academically, but that doesn’t mean we are stupid.


We are students like Kevin Lwango.

Lwango emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although he is fluent in French and Lingala, when he first came to the United States, he did not speak a word of English. But he fought to learn the English language and quickly overcame this barrier.

Lwango was one of the very fortunate SEEK students who did not experience any negative or stereotypical remarks made against him as a SEEK student. He stands in the photograph above as evidence of an immigrant from the Congo, a Black male. And he, too, is SEEK.



Translation* “But SEEK? Isn’t it for poor people? You’re just begging them for money.” – Friend.




Slang is informal use of jargon that is vulgar or socially taboo. Sometimes SEEK students bear the brunt of someone’s slang.

Even though SEEK student Manuel (Manny) Castillo, works part-time and is striving for success in every area of his life, he was insulted by a fellow classmate.


She said to him, “You’re a SEEK student? You’re That Hoe Over There.

She incorrectly used the word “thot” in the process of trying to be clever, but instead she simply lowered others’ perception of her own intelligence level.

The slang word “thot” is often used negatively towards women to describe their promiscuous ways. Why would anyone apply that to a SEEK student?


Yes, some of us, like Lwango, were born outside the U.S., but many of us were born right here in New York City. Does it really matter where we come from?



Despite such odds against us, we in SEEK are committed to personal growth, academic excellence, professional development, and to changing our world we live in one step at a time.

We are SEEK. We are not stupid. And we, too, have honors.

We are recognized by our college and beyond for our academic dedication, for our community service, and for our efforts to make the world more just.

Below are the honors and achievements that only those SEEK students highlighted in this photo essay have gained.

1 = John Jay College SEEK Alumna

11 = Full-time or Part-time Jobs

8 = Chi Alpha Epsilon (XAE) National Honor Society

1 = John Jay Presidential Intern

1 = John Jay Student Council Representative

1 = John Jay Vera Fellow

2 = Pinkerton Community Fellows

2 = NASPA Undergraduate Fellow Program

3 = Ronald E. McNair Scholars

1 = Student Athlete

9 = Membership in One or More Clubs at John Jay

3 = Peer Ambassadors

1 = Peer Counselor

3 = SEEK Peer Mentors

3 = Urban Male Initiative Peer Advocate Mentors

16 = Urban Male Initiative Students

2 = Study Abroad Students

$20,000 = Total Amount of Scholarship Money Won



John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York

SEEK Students Breaking Barriers


A special thank you to Professor Sara Whitestone in English, Dr. Monika Son in SEEK, and Nic White in the Writing Center of John Jay College for their words of encouragement, advice, and for being my cheerleaders throughout this process.


About the Author,

Melissa Kong


You can find Melissa Kong making sandwiches for the homeless on a school night or sitting next to a Humans of New York stranger on the crowded 2 train, peacefully jamming to the latest tunes as a temporary reprieve from the chaos of reality. Kong is an Asian-American writer who loves Law & Order re-runs, a bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese, and sweetened ice tea. She is in search of the next big adventure and is driven to find her own voice through personal and journalistic narrative writing. She hopes to inspiring others to have the courage to write.


The Uncorrupted Enlightenment by Fifi Youssef


Three winters, two summers, gone, yet I swear I still remember every little detail from those twelve hours. I can still hear everything from the passengers arguing over their seat numbers to everyone applauding the pilot after takeoff and then again at landing. I remember seeing the TV monitors set on the game Bejeweled, or some on animated kickboxing games, and others on the movie, The Heat. The light scented vapors from the tea and the overpowering aroma of black instant roasted coffee seemed to still be lingering around me. Everything felt surreal as if I had painted this picture in my mind.

I had a feeling this trip was going to be unlike any other. I had been having a strange gut feeling and butterflies in my stomach. I convinced myself these feelings were no more than just nervousness and anxiety since I haven’t seen my family and homeland in so many years. After boarding the plane and fighting over my window seat with some stubborn lady who seemed to be in her late thirties (yet, dressed as if she was still 18), I got comfortable, rolled up the window blind, and waited. I’ve always had a weird connection to the window seat. Once I’m up in the sky, I get this sense of being at home–a place where I can’t be judged over my thoughts. While everyone wastes their twelve hours sleeping, I sit and stare out my window.

Waiting for about an hour, the clock finally hit 7:00pm, and we began defying gravity. It was then when everything changed and I began to understand that strange gut feeling I’ve been having. The world I thought I understood became a blur. The individual I thought I was changed. Living within the sunset rather than living under it challenged everything I thought I knew. The flight I thought I remembered became a picture I thought I’d never believe. All the little details I remembered had now vanished. They vanished into the light gold rays reflecting onto the pureness of the white, cotton, bulbous clouds that were placed so unaccountably perfectly.

Living suspended in a place that seems to remain unnamed, untouched, and uncorrupted within the world I thought I knew changed everything. It made me question everything I never thought of questioning. It created a wider scope of thinking for me. It seemed as if my mind was imprisoned for all these years, and this was the perfect time for it to escape.

How can we live in such a toxic world, yet this–THIS could still be so inexplicably beautiful and pure?



About the Author,

Fifi Youssef


Fifi youssef is a crazy, outgoing, coffee lover. She is a published writer and dreams of becoming a legal writing professor. Fifi is a huge lipstick junkie and a fashionista. She believes that whether it’s her image, her writing, or even her cooking everything must be at its finest. Fifi is making her way to becoming the next Egyptian woman to bring change and justice to the world with her writing one piece at a time.