The first two graduates from the College Essay Writing Program hosted by Succeed2gether — a Montclair-based organization that aims to close opportunity and achievement gaps — have received offers from all of the colleges to which they applied. 

Those include the top choices for Safiatu Barry, and Zaki Ricketts, both 18 and both graduating from Montclair High School June 24. Barry will be pursuing a business degree, and Ricketts will be pursuing an engineering degree.

Barry has received tutoring from Succeed2gether since the fifth grade. In middle school she began tutoring younger students as well. She’s tutored four so far. 

“Tutoring kids actually helped me be more social. It helped me learn a lot about the kids I was tutoring and also the people I was working with,” Barry said. 

Barry always wanted to go to college, and her mother, who is originally from Guinea and graduated from Columbia University, influenced her decision to apply. 

For the College Essay Writing program, Barry worked with tutor David Henry Sterry, author of 16 books and contributor to The Huffington Post, on her writing. 

“The minute I met Safiatu I knew she was someone special,” Sterry said. “She has a spark in her eyes, she is fierce, kind and thoughtful. Plus, she really knows how to talk. We bandied about some ideas for her essay, and she wrote an incredible piece about being bullied by a white boy in middle grade. It was so good they published it in our local newspaper.” 

With Sterry’s help, Barry wrote about the experience and meaning of changing her name, from Safiatu to Safi, due to the constant mockery she faced. She wrote about how it shaped her identity. 

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“The idea of personal identity, fitting in, and having to change your name, change who you are, was so deep and powerful,” Sterry said. “I was not surprised that she got into Howard and Temple [universities], two of her top choices. I cherish my time working with her, it was a sheer delight.”

Barry is still making a final choice on which of the two schools she’ll attend.

She credits the tutoring program and the tutors themselves for their help.

“I feel having a tutor gives kids an opportunity to bond with somebody and also really learn from them. Not just academically. When you get to know someone, you’re teaching them a lot of things just about life in general,” Barry said. “The kids I tutored were at such a young age, I feel they looked up to me. And when you bond with them, I think it comes easier. You get to understand their learning styles.” 

Barry will follow the footsteps of other family members who work in business. She plans to focus on trading and cryptocurrencies.

When Ricketts enrolled in the program, he thought he was the worst writer in the world, he said. 

Ricketts said he didn’t know he could go to college. His aunt, Wildad Ricketts, convinced him to give the program a try.

“I was appreciative that there was a program like Succeed2gether that helps students with their academics,” Ricketts said. 

His tutor, Arielle Eckstut, author of nine books and literary agent for over 20 years (as well as Sterry’s wife), saw the struggles Ricketts was facing as someone with autism. She said even though he got great test scores and grades in math and science, he wasn’t placed in the classes that she said would have been best for someone with his skills. 

Throughout the year, Eckstut worked with Ricketts week after week on his writing. As the weeks passed, Eckstut saw how, in the process of writing his essay, Ricketts realized what he wanted to pursue in college: engineering. 

“For me, the best part of working with Zaki was watching him realize that things he thought he was terrible at — like writing — he was actually very good at,” Eckstut wrote. “He wrote one of the most beautiful college essays I’ve read.” 

Ricketts had run track, and loved to run in general, she said. So Ricketts’ essay explored a metaphor, Eckstut said — “what are you running from, and what are you running to?”

Ricketts didn’t have a vision at first of what goals he might achieve, Eckstut said. That changed as they continued to work together. 

“I’m really happy that I got into my first choice of school, NJIT,” Ricketts said. “My goal is to be a mechanical or chemical engineer. Right now, my major is general engineering, but I plan on figuring out which branch of engineering suits me best by the end of my first year of college.” 

Ricketts will be going to the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a full scholarship. 

Even though he was able to get into his dream school, Ricketts does not forget why he is attending college in the first place: to become successful, have a productive life and to support his family, 

“Zaki is an extraordinary person — so smart, funny, creative, sweet, thoughtful. Yet things haven't always come easy to him,” Eckstut said. “If not for his incredibly hard work, his perseverance, and the intervention of his equally extraordinary aunt, he wouldn't be where he is today.”

Also: Succeed2gether has launching Pathways Forward, a new program offering wrap-around support for students and their families over the six-year journey from middle school through the first year of college or vocational training. The program is free for low- and moderate-income families. Find more information here.