The YPIE College Zone is not hosted on a multi-million dollar campus. The names of wealthy alumni and powerful donors do not adorn its walls. The Yonkers program includes a few renovated rooms rented from the Greystone Jewish Center.
The opening was a major undertaking for Yonkers Partners in Education, a non-profit organization that works with schools in the city to get students to school and prepare them for success.
YPIE's mission is far from what is happening in many of the suburban school systems that are the hallmarks of the Lower Hudson Valley – not to mention the corruption scandal in the universities – that surrounds the rich and celebrities.
At Yonkers, many students go to school without benefits, in homes where no one went to college, or negotiate the admissions process, much less handle it. In the YPIE University Zone, dozens of students from across the city devote hours each day to their homework, preparing essays and application files, exploring financial and registration documents and trying to conquer the scary world of college admissions.
Marcela Cabrera, 17, a student at Saunders Technical and Technical High School, compared the extra workload to a full-time job.
"When I made my first request, I watched so much and felt all the pressure," said Cabrera. "It's a lot to do."
But as the biggest cheating scandal ever committed in the United States has clearly shown this week, it's a job that not everyone is doing.
"We are on the other side and we have to work for what we get," she said. "I was clearly hurt."
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YPIE's goal is to provide economically disadvantaged Yonkers students with the resources that their wealthier neighbors take for granted. The difficult but ambitious work they do is the absolute opposite of the corruption and fraud described by the US federal authorities in charging more than 50 people earlier this week.
For Citlalli Rojas, a senior at Yonkers High School, the scandal was deeply disheartening.
"I feel indignant," said the 17-year-old. "I have really climbed the ladder and the kids who can simply miss out on everything that makes me wonder," Why am I doing this? "
YPIE, which relies on grants and private fundraising, now supports up to 1,200 students each year under a number of core programs. YPIE's work with Yonkers students has had a major effect on the city's graduation rate – Yonkers became last year the first of the "Big 5" school systems in the state of New York to reach the threshold of 80% of graduation.
"Students from low-income backgrounds are at a competitive disadvantage," said group program manager Samuel Wallis. "I do not think anyone in our organization thought that this whole process was not a difficult battle, and this scandal reminded us of it in an extremely harsh way."
Rojas, who will be the first person in her family to attend college, said the family's pride and unwavering confidence in herself will only drive her to work harder.
"I have a point to prove," she says.
It's a mentality that shares Wallis.
"All this reminds us of the compelling urgency of what needs to be done to level the playing field," he said. "It's fuel: that's what we're facing."
Despite persistent economic and racial disparities in academic achievement, Wallis said he remains convinced that the college system is a driver of social mobility.
Colleges, he said, are beginning to interest students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some pay bus trips for potential visiting students who may not be able to pay for them. Some ask first year students who are the first members of their family to go to college to act as tour guides on campus, so that visiting first generation students feel welcome.
Georgetown, where a coach has been involved in the corruption scandal, has put in place a program offering mentorship and educational support to accepted first-generation students.
"At best, the US higher education system can change a family and help break the cycle of poverty," Wallis said. "There are examples of that, and we wish there were more."
Many students involved in YPIE said that they had worked too hard and done too much to let the admissions scandal dissuade them from the world of higher education.
"I look at the story and I think" Yes, I was expecting that, "said David Green, a senior at Yonkers High School who hopes to study computer science in one of the 15 colleges to which he has enrolled. "But I can not let their work impact my way of doing things, I will continue to live the life I want."