Wahdada Stenett, a 16-year-old from Staten Island, was 6 years old when his father died leaving his mother to raise seven children by herself.
The following year she decided to get her associate's degree and become a probation officer, in order to get her family into a safer neighborhood, Wahdada said. "She wanted to have a house, have food on the table and be a family for once."
She is at "Camp College" at Niagara University, a program designed to give high school students a chance to experience campus life and teach them skills to get accepted to a school.
It is NU's second year to hold the camp, developed by the New York State Association of College Admissions Counselors, and it is hosting 70 students from all over the state, the majority from New York City and local cities.
The majority of students would be the first in their family to attend college and many have social and financial roadblocks to overcome, said Michael Konopski, NU's director of admissions.
Wahdada came to the program at NU last year as well, and it has changed the way he looks at his future, he said.
"Before I thought I was going to be going to community college or only doing it for a year and now I see myself going and getting something out of (college) and giving it to others."
By "giving it to others" Wahdada means passing along all the knowledge he gains about the college process -- from writing entrance exam essays to "dealing with people" -- to his younger brother and sister.
He wants to study accounting because he likes math, but dreams of playing basketball at Duke University.
Wahdada's mother took college classes to increase her income, he said.
Although that's a valid reason for going to college, said Lewanda Miller, a college adviser from Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, she used a mentoring session Saturday morning at the university to encourage the 10 students in her group to consider what else they could do with that education.
"Think about how the knowledge will feed and prepare you for a career. Don't ever let that green piece of paper be your end goal," Miller told them. "The goal is to take information you've been given and process it into something else, money can't do that for you."
Miller and four other mentors covered how to write an entrance exam essay, how to research information about colleges and concluded with mock interviews between potential students and admissions counselors, many showing the teens what not to do.
The program began Friday and concludes today. Itmixes social events with instructive activities, like the chance to take a real college course and ask questions of admissions counselors.