October 31, 2018
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A New York mentorship program caters to the unique needs of immigrant girls

Ayoko Kessouagni came to the U.S. from Togo as a baby. Through SPEAK Mentorship, she has found a supportive community in her Newark home.

SPEAK Mentorship provides young women from immigrant families a strong network of champions to help them navigate between dual cultures and thrive in their academic lives and professional futures. Photo courtesy of SPEAK Mentorship

In 2003, my parents didn’t expect that leaving their home country of Togo would mean leaving one of their children behind. I was only nine months at the time, so I didn’t have any memories of my life back there, but hearing my mom talk about Togo and how she had to leave my older sister behind because she wouldn’t have been able to take care of the both of us made me understand the sacrifices she made to come to the United States.

With the help of SPEAK Mentorship, I am able to share my past experiences and how it has molded me into a bold individual. Through SPEAK, I have learned many lessons. They have given many first generation girls, like myself, the voice to express how we feel about today’s issues and how we can help our communities persevere in the face of those issues. SPEAK’s emphasis on developing a supportive community around me has made the school-to-career journey, which can be confusing and challenging for immigrant youth, much simpler to navigate. My story, like many other first generation girls, started off with my parents wanting a better future for their children.

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Luckily, my parents learned some English back home during their school days, but it was still difficult for them to adjust to their new surroundings. They found solace in the community that reflected different cultures and colors of people who had also migrated to America, providing essential support my family needed early on.

With having to adapt to such a different society compared to Togo’s, it also meant adapting to the workforce. Both of my parents took up jobs at a dollar store. My father worked in New Jersey, while my mother worked in New York. At the time, I lived with my mother. I rarely saw my father, and only spoke with him over the phone. In a way, it was as though my family wasn’t whole; my sister was back in Africa, my father was in New Jersey, and me and my mother were in New York. Although my mother was not a “single mom,” that was how she felt.

In 2007, my mom and I moved to New Jersey because my father finally got a new and better job. Although he was still working as a manager for a dollar store, we were able to come back together as an almost complete family. My parents were trying their best to bring my sister to the U.S. so we could all be together again—she finally joined us in 2009. My parents were so full of joy and hope for the future.

Thinking back to everything my parents have gone through to get to this point, where they have great paying jobs and all of us are American citizens, has made me grateful for the position I am in now, and thankful that my parents decided to move to America. Not only was coming to America their dream, it also provided my sister and me opportunities we wouldn’t have had if we’d stayed in Togo.

None of this would have been possible without the communities that surrounded all of us individually in our separate homes at the very beginning. Many immigrant families such as mine benefit from community support to help them stay strong and resilient through a lot of hardships and to tap into resources that help them succeed. I learned about the benefit of community throughout my family’s struggles. I continue to surround myself with supportive individuals who can help me become a future leader in the workforce.

Being a part of a community like SPEAK Mentorship gave me so many amazing opportunities, like having so many influential mentors—women who understand what I and many other first generation girls have gone through. I also met other girls who are a part of SPEAK and have developed long-lasting friendships—our community feels more like a family.

SPEAK understands the unique struggles of immigrant youth and can provide a community of mentors and peers that help girls find support and resources directly from within that community. Through my experience with SPEAK Mentorship, I know that I can always find individuals who will support me through my journey to become a successful career professional, as a woman of color poised to be a leader in the future workforce.

You can make a difference: Find out how you can support SPEAK Mentorship, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Ayoko Kessouagni

Ayoko Kessouagni is a junior at American History High School. Her family is from Togo and now live in Newark, New Jersey. Her experiences as a first generation girl has shaped her into the bold women she is today. Ayoko's love for writing and interest in understanding how fashion affects society and cultures has made her realize her calling. She wants to attend Brown or the Academy of Arts University to pursue a career in fashion journalism.