Nicole Suissa, a University of Hartford freshman with a New York accent and the swagger to go with it, hopes to be the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college.
She was raised by her divorced mother, and the two spent two years living in homeless shelters in New York. The 18-year-old has a different perspective than the average U of H student.
"My friends say I've got a New York attitude. I have a tough exterior," Suissa said. "I prefer to have it that way than to be naive and get disappointed."
Her mother, Sara Alzioud of Brooklyn, described her daughter as a hard worker.
"Whatever happened to us, Nicky turned it around and used it to motivate herself. She just has a great way about her," Alzioud said.
That motivation came in handy when Suissa learned recently that her dream of going on to law school after college was in jeopardy because she couldn't afford to pay her University of Hartford tuition.
Though the university had given her a generous financial aid package, it didn't cover everything. Her aunt filled the gap by taking out a loan, but when the economy soured this fall, her aunt told her she could not help any further. Her mother could not get a loan because of poor credit.
With her tuition bill unpaid, Suissa suddenly found the university had frozen her records. She couldn't even transfer to a less expensive school because she couldn't get a copy of her transcripts.
Aggravated, Suissa fired off an e-mail to the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which was looking for feedback from students who were having trouble paying for college.
"I was really frustrated. It's come to a recession and the first thing they choose to bail out is Wall Street instead of struggling college students. Where's my bailout?" said Suissa, who is half Puerto Rican.
That e-mail turned out to be Suissa's lucky break. CNN producer Ronni Berke read it and decided to feature Suissa in a national story about lower-income students struggling to come up with the money to stay in college.
After the story aired on Feb. 26, Suissa began to hear from strangers who had seen it and wanted to help. A soldier in Iraq started to send her $50 a month to help pay for books. A leukemia patient in Arizona whose life had been saved by an anonymous bone marrow donor stepped forward because he wanted to help someone else.
A mother of another University of Hartford freshman, noting that her own daughter has never had to worry about paying a bill, was moved to pay off the rest of Suissa's bill anonymously.
Three other people — a lawyer in North Carolina, a scholarship foundation manager in Cleveland, and an anonymous woman from Stamford — got together and agreed to pay for the rest of her college education.
"I was ecstatic and grateful," Suissa said. "I wasn't raised to believe in getting help. My mother always said no one else is going to help you, so you have to help yourself."
In fact, she has gotten more donations than she needs. So she is setting up a foundation with the extra money to be used as an emergency fund for students who need financial help midway through college.
"My faith in humanity has been completely restored," said Suissa, who said she saw plenty of life's dark side — domestic violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse — while living in homeless shelters.
"There was a whole lot of everything," she said.
All of which has made her tough and resilient.
Suissa, who works 20 hours a week in the university's dining halls, said the CNN story also generated some negative feedback. Some viewers criticized her for going to a private school.
"Some said, 'Oh, she has such a sense of entitlement. Why doesn't she go to a cheaper school?'" Suissa said.
Suissa explained that New York's public colleges, the State University of New York and the City University of New York, don't have the type of pre-law program she was seeking.
"Honestly, I think I've earned it," Suissa said. "I work very hard and I did all sorts of things to get here."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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