Alumna Michelle Chen ’10 Explains How SEEK Paved Her Pathway to Success

Alumna Michelle Chen ’10 Explains How SEEK Paved Her Pathway to Success

Alumna Michelle Chen ’10 Explains How SEEK Paved Her Pathway to Success

Michelle Chen ’10 knows how life-changing programs like the Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) Program can be for students from underserved and underprivileged backgrounds. When she was 12 years old, Chen and her family immigrated to the United States from China with the hopes of creating a better life for her and her two younger siblings. “We moved to Brooklyn, New York and lived in a small apartment because that’s all we could afford,” says Chen. “You would think that five people squeezed into a tiny apartment would be a bad experience, but it was wonderful. We grew closer as a family and we felt safe and secure.”

Outside the home, Chen was enrolled in school, but without knowledge of the English language, she struggled. “When I first arrived to the U.S. I didn’t speak any English and I was enrolled in a school that had mainly native English speakers—it wasn’t a bilingual school—so it was tough to communicate with teachers and classmates,” recalls Chen. Difficulty with the language meant that Chen was at a major disadvantage in the classroom, often struggling academically, especially in high school. Luckily, while speaking to her high school guidance counselor about her academic struggles, she learned about SEEK, a higher education opportunity program designed to elevate and support students who hope to go to college but are both academically and financially disadvantaged. “SEEK empowers students, giving them access to program support, financial aid, counseling, tutoring, and other services, creating a direct path to success.”  

“SEEK empowers students, giving them access to program support, financial aid, counseling, tutoring, and other services, creating a direct path to success.” —Michelle Chen

Coming to John Jay
Chen grew up wanting to work in law enforcement, so when the time came to apply to colleges, she had her heart set on John Jay. “I always knew I wanted to go to John Jay because of its reputation as being one of the top criminal justice schools in the country. I initially wanted to become a police officer and knew John Jay was the best school in the City University of New York [CUNY] system to put me on the path toward accomplishing that goal.” But once Chen was at John Jay, and she took courses that showed her advocacy can take on many forms, she decided to opt for a different path. “My goal changed during my course of study, and I majored in Public Administration with a concentration in Court Administration.” While at the College, Chen underwent a personal transformation. Gone was the quiet girl who felt she couldn’t succeed, and in was the young woman who felt empowered. At John Jay, she found a greater sense of belonging, forming wonderful memories, and creating lifelong friendships. Her participation in the John Jay Martial Arts Club inspired her to stand proud, defend herself, and to be ready for whatever life throws her way. “I joined the club during my freshman year, wanting to learn self-defense. Through the training, and under the guidance of Sensei Alberto Gotay, I learned discipline, focus, respect, and teamwork.”

Chen (right) holds up a trophy following a karate tournament
Chen (right) holds up a trophy following a karate tournament

Her involvement with SEEK gave her hope for greater academic success. “SEEK is what I call my ‘U-turn golden opportunity’ in terms of academic improvement. It literally changed my life,” says Chen. Through the program, Chen was able to get tutoring, homework help, access to computer labs, and a counselor that worked to support her throughout her four years at the College. “Academically, I struggled in high school and my grades reflected that. I felt incredibly lucky to be enrolled in SEEK while at John Jay. Through the program’s student support offerings, I was able to improve my grades, earn my degree, and pursue my career goals,” she says. “It’s because of SEEK I went from a student who struggled academically for most of my life, to being a first-generation college student graduating with honors.” After John Jay, Chen was hired as a junior paralegal at a small law firm in lower Manhattan, launching her career in the legal profession. She worked her way up the ladder and took on a paralegal position at a personal injury law firm where she specialized in handling major labor law cases, and now she’s Chief of Staff at a high-stakes litigation law firm with offices in New York City and Dallas.

“SEEK is what I call my ‘U-turn golden opportunity’ in terms of academic improvement; it literally changed my life.” —Michelle Chen

Paying It Forward
Inspired by her own SEEK experience, Chen is paying it forward by working with programs that increase equity in the classroom and provide opportunities for students that are at a disadvantage. Through her work with the Future Leaders Program (FLP) in Dallas, she’s helping to create educational opportunities for students from underserved communities and underprivileged backgrounds. “The Future Leaders Program provides academic resources and leadership training to deserving students from the Dallas Independent School District [DISD]. The program, available to students in grades seven through 12, is available for free to students from economically-challenged neighborhoods,” explains Chen, noting that this year, there are approximately 125 students from the DISD enrolled in the program. “A lot of FLP students are the first in their family to go to college,” she says. “I see so much of myself in these students. Like me, they have big dreams and they have so much potential. They just need a little help along the way.”

“What John Jay taught me most is that we can all become the star of our own story. No matter where we come from, where we live, or what our struggles are.” —Michelle Chen

Support from FLP helps students create “road maps” to their future career goals, and sets them on the path to college. Under the program, students participate in academic enrichment programming on the weekends, intensive summer programs, and they receive assistance with the search and application process for scholarships, financial aid, and college. “I learned so many lessons from my time at John Jay. The Martial Arts Club empowered me and taught me focus; SEEK elevated me academically creating new opportunities for success. But what John Jay taught me most is that we can all become the star of our own story. No matter where we come from, where we live, or what our struggles are, when an opportunity arrives we should take it and make the best of it.”