Across most of her high school career, Leigh Duignan made steady progress toward college. She worked to improve her grades, took on a nearly full-time job at a local ice cream shop to start saving for tuition, and joined a computer programming club.
But in her senior year at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan, those plans threatened to unravel. Her dad had a heart attack, and other problems arose that left her without much support at home.
“This year was probably the hardest year of my whole high school career,” Duignan said. “All of these bad things just all happened at once and I really, really wanted to quit.”
Still, last Friday, donning a white graduation gown and a grin, Duignan joined about 100 of her classmates in a celebratory march through Midtown and into the auditorium of New World Stages on 50th Street, where her parents looked on while she officially graduated from high school.
Duignan, 18, is headed to SUNY Polytechnic Institute this fall, and even though her tuition will be covered by a state scholarship, she scraped together over $2,000 working at Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Queens – often staying until midnight or later.
“Financially, things weren’t really great this year. I’d be so tired [after work], but it’d be worth it,” she thought.
Duignan wasn’t the only student at UA Gateway who took on adult responsibilities to help propel herself to graduation. Her classmate, Dorothy Slater, 19, also worked nearly full-time this past year at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown to help pay for groceries and to have her own spending money since her mother has a disability and does not work.
Slater even earned enough money to file taxes, which she completed herself with some help from an Urban Assembly staff member.
“I just learned how to deal with it,” she said, regarding the extra responsibilities. “I was just like, ‘This the adult world, and now I’m in it.’”
Slater plans to attend SUNY Plattsburgh starting this summer as part of its Educational Opportunity Program, which helps motivated yet disadvantaged students who don’t meet traditional admissions requirements gain entry to SUNY colleges, and offers additional academic support.
The school’s administrators note that while many students overcome challenges, Slater and Duignan are unusual in the adult roles they’ve taken on without losing sight of school.
“They’ve taken advantage of all of the resources available to them,” said Alex Rigney, the school’s director of college counseling. “These guys have put in as much time as any students here.”
In addition to work and school, Duignan joined the after-school club Girls Who Code as a way of exploring her interest in programming outside of male-dominated spaces (roughly 80 percent of students at UA Gateway are men). Slater took on internships that let her explore her interest in graphic design – and both young women participated in College Now, which let them take community college classes while enrolled in high school.
“She’s usually the last one here when I’m locking up at 6 o’clock,” Rigney said of Duignan, noting that she often sticks around to get homework done before leaving for work. “Frankly, I don’t know how she balanced it all.”
School hasn’t always come easily to Duignan. Due to a learning difference, she didn’t master reading until the sixth grade, and has been supported by a learning plan geared for students with disabilities. “I used to look at a book and think, ‘I could never read that,’” she said.
Duignan attributes her high school success partly to extra counseling she got through her individual learning plan, staff members in whom she felt comfortable confiding, and her mentor from the Big Sisters program, who boosted her confidence.
On Friday, the school gave her one last push. In the middle of the graduation ceremony, the school awarded Duignan an extra $5,000 scholarship – the top prize offered this year.
“I’m just in complete awe,” she said moments later, surrounded by her family.
It’s not an entirely easy transition. Slater teared up when asked about the prospect of traveling across the state for college, and leaving her mother behind. “I lived in the city for my whole entire life. It’s an adjustment.”
And while Duignan is looking forward to moving away for school, and escaping the challenges associated with her family life, she still wonders whether she’s completely prepared for college.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”