Juliane Dressner, Karoline Jimenez, Christine Rodriguez, and Enoch Jemmott
Music Credit: “History of an Apology” written and performed by Paul Rucker, from the cd, History of an Apology.
*Film excerpt from Personal Statement*
Jo Reed: That is an excerpt from the documentary Personal Statement, which has its world premiere as the opening night film at the AFI Documentary Film Festival, and this is Art Works—the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Personal Statement follows Karoline, Christine and Enoch through their senior year of high school as they go through the process of applying for college and serving as peer college counselors— in other words helping to guide their fellow classmates through the maze of forms necessary for successful college applications. The counseling program is offered by CARA-- College Access: Research and Action. And it’s a rigorous 70 plus hours of comprehensive training in college access content and counseling. And it’s necessary, because--as this film points out-- the lack of college guidance counselors means many public school students have to figure out the application process and financial forms on their own.
Like the students they counsel, Karoline, Christine, and Enoch are the first generation in their family to go to college and they have their own challenges to work through as well: Karoline has moved from the Dominican Republic when she was 12; there’s some strife in her family and she has been bullied for being gay. Christine is from a very traditional household where girls are treated very differently from boys and not expected to have the same ambitions. Enoch’s mother is in a homeless shelter and he lives with his sister and her two kids in a one bedroom apartment. Yet, despite these challenges, these students are not only determined to go to college themselves—they put their hearts and souls into helping their classmates achieve their dreams as well.
The lack of college counselors in public schools and the work that CARA does came to the attention of documentary filmmaker Juliane Dressner—and she knew she had her next project.
Juliane Dressner: I had made a few films about young people who were working in their communities to solve the problems that they faced. Those were short films. And I have always been inspired when young people are taking it upon themselves to address the problems in their communities. And so when I learned that young people in New York City were stepping up to close the college guidance gap in their high schools by working as college counselors because there is not enough college guidance support otherwise in their schools -- well, I was inspired to learn about the fact that they were doing that work. And I immediately thought that this would be a great way to understand better the systemic barriers that are keeping so many low-income students from going to and graduating from college. And to be able to understand it from the perspective of young people who were doing something about the problem.
Jo Reed: I want to welcome Karoline Jimenez and Christine Rodriguez –Enoch Jemmott will be joining us a bit later. Christine, I’m going to start with you—will you explain the peer-counseling program to us?
Christine Rodriguez: So I got training with CARA which is College Access: Research and Action. During the summer they host a space for youth throughout the city to get trained on the college process, so the college application, financial stuff and peer counseling. So we learn skills about counseling, talking to your peers, asking questions and facilitating workshops so we do runs on workshops. And it's very powerful to be in a space where a lot of young people who are around the same ages as us who have no idea around the college process because most of us are first-generation students and we are basically learning along the way.
Jo Reed: Karoline—how did you get involved with becoming a youth leader and peer counselor with CARA?
Karoline Jimenez: When I got hired as a youth leader it happened out of nowhere because I didn't have to do any sort of interview. I just had my supervisor at the moment and my college counselor Irma, tell me, "I'm here to give you an opportunity. You're going to work as a youth leader."
At first I was like, what in the world of Jesus are we talking about here? But I remember exactly what she told me at that moment. She told me, "Okay, just trust me. And believe in yourself. And everything else will come on its own."
But I was--the moment I got hired I was a bad student. I was a student that missed a lot of classes, a student that was disrespectful in some way to my professors, my teachers because I was lost. I was going through a lot of bullying and a lot of family drama. So focusing on my academics wasn't something that was at the top of my head. But being a youth leader, being a part of the program it's really helped. It transformed me into a better person, a better student definitely because when I came back my senior year I rocked that year. And I became the person that I am today. A person who is not afraid to stand up for others
Jo Reed: Yeah, well, that was pretty clear in the film.
Karoline Jimenez: Thank you.
Jo Reed: No, not all. And Christine, you seemed like college was something that you were really determined to do.
Christine Rodriguez: Yeah. I've always wanted to go to college. Like that was out of the question although I was first-generation. All of my cousins went to college. So they had already built that path for me. They already expected me to go to college and get my masters and you know just do what I love to do. But when I became a youth leader I was an uprising junior. So I was ahead of the game. And I've been working there ever since. I still work in my high school doing college work with seniors.
Jo Reed: Juliane, there's Christine and Karoline and Enoch, they’re three rock stars. How did you come to choose them? And how many other students did you talk to? I can't believe these are the only three students you thought about, unless, you're an extraordinarily lucky human being.
Juliane Dressner: So, we showed up with the camera on the very first day of the training when they were learning to be peer college counselors. And there were 70 young people in that room. And I have to tell you there were 70 rock stars in that room. You could have made 70 films about 70 different people. Because they're just all charismatic and smart and caring and compassionate. And the energy in that room was really phenomenal, I would say. And not everybody was interested in participating in a documentary. So that was sort of where we started. We let them know why we were there and we asked folks to talk to us who might be open to being in a documentary. And then, as Karoline said we did some casting interviews on the second day that we were filming at the training. And then we had to make some hard choices of who to work with from there. Because, really, there were so many incredibly young people in the room.
Jo Reed: Okay, Karoline—you’re at a training session at CARA and Juliane walks in and she not only wants to film the training, she wants to focus on three students. What were your thoughts?
Karoline Jimenez: Well, at the beginning I was a little shocked mostly because I have a lot of trust issues when it comes to trusting people that I don't know. But Juli definitely had a-- she contains a very vibrant spirit. She's the kind of person to approach and just makes you want to talk to her. She just invited me outside the training room with CARA. She asked me a couple of questions in front of a camera. She explained to me the reasons why she was doing it. And I felt that it was something important for me to do since, you know, I was trying to figure out some way to help with the young people. And I knew that it was something that was going to have a greater impact.
Jo Reed: And what about you, Christine? You met at the same time as Karoline?
Christine Rodriguez: Yeah, I met Karoline and Julia around the same time. I had an idea of what was going on in terms of the film because Juli was already filming. Later on that week during the training she invited me to join the film because she heard of my advocacy and my activist work and she wanted to include that in her story.
Jo Reed: I want to talk about your parents because, clearly, Juliane they’re not adults yet, so you need parental permission to film them. And you also had the parents actually open their homes to you. How did you approach that? I want to hear from you first and then I want to hear from both of you about how that first conversation with your parents sort of came down.
Juliane Dressner: their parents, their families support them. And when they heard that this film was, you know, following their inspirational work as college counselors in their school they saw supporting the film as a way to further support their children. And raise awareness about the need to close the college guidance gap by showing how they are doing it.
Jo Reed: And what about Karoline, with your family? Because they weren't in the film itself but you were certainly in your home.
Karoline Jimenez: Well, the first person I told was my aunt. Her name is Karina. Because when Juli met my mom she had just recently gotten hear from Dominican Republic. She was new to the country, every single aspect of it. But my aunt she knew and she was very supportive. She has always served as a role model for me. She went to school here and graduated with a bachelors and her masters here. But when my mom met Juli they’re like best friends now.
Jo Reed: And what about with your mother, Christine?
Christine Rodriguez: I agree. My mom is a caring person. She supports me but she doesn't always support the work that I do. But she was very open to opening our doors to Juli in the film. But I believe during the process I feel like she was careful with what she said because she was sort of realizing although she supports me and she loves me there are things that she needs to address for herself in terms of her beliefs.
Jo Reed: It would be very hard to have a film crew filming me and being in the house. I mean, obviously, for a good cause you're going to do it. But it's not something I would just jump out and say, oh, sure. It's asking a lot, I think. Enoch is here. Hi Enoch!
Enoch Jemmott: Hey guys
Jo Reed: We were talking about becoming a part of the documentary when you were at the training session that first day. What was your sense when you were approached by Juliane about being part of a documentary?
Enoch Jemmott: Well, I mean, it kind of caught me by surprise, you know. Me and Juli sat down and we spoke about my past and she kind of got personal really quickly and we became like best friends in the small time we met each other. I was little surprised and I knew that was going to be a very intense process, you know, nd I guess I was trying to wrap my head around how would being a part of a documentary go? What would that take, you know?
Jo Reed: Well, that was a beautiful segue to my next question. Thank you. And that is I was wondering trying to wrap your head around, okay, somebody wants to make a documentary about not necessarily about me but I’m playing a central role in this documentary and the big decisions that I’m making right now? How long did it take you not to pay attention to the fact that you were being filmed? I'm always curious about that because it would take me forever. And did you ever want to say, okay, just stop filming right now. It's just too private and too personal? Okay, Karoline, you're smiling, you go first.
Karoline Jimenez: I never felt weird. I mean, yeah, there were times but every time that I was around my students I was always truthful. And you can see that in the camera when I had to be talking with my student that was entirely me. There did come a time, though, where I got extremely upset and I was so stressed with the whole college process, the whole academics, and I asked Juli to stop filming for a while. But then, you know, after I got my stuff together I communicated with her, again. And I contacted her and I told her I was ready to continue. But, yeah, it definitely took some space from filming for a while. But not because I felt weird or anything just because …
Jo Reed: It was overwhelming
Karoline Jimenez: … I was dealing with a lot of emotional disbalance and needed to find myself and find that part of me again.
Jo Reed: What about you, Enoch?
Enoch Jemmott: Well, for me, it kind of a took a while like a month or two to like get used to it because first you’re like, oh wow, like this is cool you know? I'm getting followed by this camera and stuff. Over time it got like just like it was air. It was like nothing was around you. And there were definitely times where I'm talking to my sister about serious stuff and I'm dealing with her and then there's a camera right in my face and like oh my goodness a lot is going on right now. Yeah, it got overwhelming sometimes. But I got used to it.
Jo Reed: And Christine?
Christine Rodriguez: I would say I'm still not used to being followed around with a camera. But there are many times where I just forget about it because I'm so focused on what I'm doing. But when the camera is in the way then it's like I can’t not focus on the camera.
Jo Reed: Yeah. And what about when you were actually counseling the other students in your various schools? Was it difficult? How did you get them used to the camera being there?
Karoline Jimenez: No, my students loved being in the camera.
Enoch Jemmott: Oh yeah, the same with me.
Karoline Jimenez: I think you made it easier for me to approach them. They just wanted to be in the camera.
Jo Reed: Oh, really?
Karoline Jimenez: Oh, yes. I mean they would see the camera and they would go and they would become excited. So me chasing them around and getting them to come to this to see wasn't as hard when Juli was behind me with the camera.
Enoch Jemmott: Yeah, yeah, yeah
Jo Reed: And did you find that to be true, too?
Christine Rodriguez: I mean I agree everybody wants to be a star, but sometimes some of my students felt uncomfortable and you can see it. It's very personal when you counsel your peers.
*Film Excerpt from Personal Statement*
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the film Personal Statement with Christine counseling one of her students. You know, when I was watching the film and listening to the three of you as you are counseling other students, what occurred to me is how much you’re willing to do, which we just heard, and that you’re listening to what the students are saying. You're responding to them--you heard what they needed and asked “how can I help you.” I was really impressed by that.
Karoline Jimenez: I think we were professionally trained by the people at CARA <<laughs>>. We spent a lot of good time there. We definitely did a lot of exercise. And at the end of it we were young people and students are young people. So we have a different kind of relationship than young students with supervisors or college counselors. We definitely knew how to communicate with each other because that relationship already existed. So it wasn't hard for us to be straightforward and honest.
Enoch Jemmott: And even friendly, too, because I feel like we had a different approach then my guidance counselor. She would come and be like, you know, “This is what’s missing. This is so-and-so.” So I feel like we had a more friendly approach, as well.
Christine Rodriguez: And may I add, we all want to see our peers succeed. We all want them to be where they want to be. Of course, you're going to do whatever it takes to help them get there.
Juliane Dressner: Yeah. I just want to add that we had about 400 hours of footage and we cut it down to an 84-minute-long version and now a 52-minute short version that will be broadcast on public television on October 23 and 8:00 P.M. And we hope everybody will tune in. So what you don't see in either version are the hours and hours and hours that these young people spent alongside their peers literally doing the entire common app, the entire SUNY application, the entire CUNY application. Helping through every single step. Hours and hours of consultation and counseling that they gave. And, of course, as you do see in the film it's just the dedication, the commitment, that they gave to their peers and the sense of responsibility that they had to ensuring everyone's success was truly inspirational. I hope it comes through in the film.
Jo Reed: Oh, it definitely comes through in the film.
Juliane Dressner: Even though we had to cut out a lot of that time. But it was just such an amazing amount of time. And they all would put their peers in front of them. And then say, “I'll do mine, I'll do mine later.” They, they had had the benefit of the training and they wanted to share it.
*Film Excerpt from Personal Statement *
Jo Reed: Juli, you said you some 400 hours of footage. How long did the editing process take?
Juliane Dressner: The editing process took a very long time. I mean, in part, because we had to stop editing for a while so that I could try and raise the funds that we needed to complete the edit. So it wasn't all straight through. But I would say that we edited, if it were full-time equivalent it was probably about a year-and-a-half of editing.
Jo Reed: And were Karoline, Christine or Enoch involved in the editing process at all? Or see various drafts the film as it was coming along?
Juliane Dressner: Well, yeah, we would allow them to see it as it was evolving. And, you know, we definitely wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable with what was included in the film. But they didn't have final cut or editorial control.
Jo Reed: Yeah, but it's a relationship.
Juliane Dressner: Yes. Yes. And it's the entire making of the film was such a collaborative process. I mean we would decide together what we would film. And early on in the process we spent a day and we did like life story writing workshop together that Eddie Martinez sort of helped to create. And that was a really important part of our process because we were saying these are your stories. And what story do you want to tell? What do you want to share? And, therefore, let's think about what is going to be important to make sure that we film along the way over the course of senior year and the beginning of college. So it was really very collaborative in terms of deciding when to film, what to film.
Jo Reed: Was anything surprising when you actually saw the various drafts or the finished product? Because, okay, it's one thing somebody is filming you but, you know, 400 hours and it’s crafted and it’s framed and it's these particular stories. Did anything surprise you?
Enoch Jemmott: Well, seeing the various drafts I was always like caught by it all because everyone films-- Eddie and Juli they filmed so much between all of us. And then seeing it put altogether and like such a small time like five minutes and stuff of what we were watching, I'm like how could they possibly-- I can't believe they made an actual story and it flows out of all of the hours that they spent with us. I was happy and surprised about that
Jo Reed: Yeah, that's a craft. Christine?
Christine Rodriguez: For me, what surprised me was the perspective of things because this is my life. I wouldn't see my life this way. It feels so intense. I didn't even know I was going through all of this to be honest <<laughs>>. But I mean not to say that the story is not true but it's just a different perspective.
Jo Reed: Yeah, no, I understand that. Karoline, what about you?
Karoline Jimenez: Well, they know this I cry every time I watch the film not for negative reasons. I guess every time I see I watch that film it kind of just reminds me of all of the growth that I have accomplished, how much I’ve changed. And then I just find myself in this ball of emotions between missing parts of the person I used to be, but also being proud of the person I am now. Because there are definitely certain things about my life in high school that I would definitely love to have again but, obviously, that I cannot have because we’re now getting into the adult life. But it also reminds me that there is so much to life when you have a positive mind and when you put yourself completely into something that you're passionate about.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of passion: Christine, what led you to advocacy?
Christine Rodriguez: Well, I've always been involved in my community whether that be at church or like in school. I've always been involved with helping my peers. But that's just something that I've always had a passion for. And like I can always connect that back to my family and their values of being caring and whatever is going on is also our problem because we’re living in the same world. We all have a role to play. But receiving all the opportunities to become a leader and receiving like the language of things that we’re going through it, it empowered me to advocate the way that I do.
Jo Reed: Karoline you were bullied when you were a kid and you were fierce about making sure it was not going to happen to kids in that school while you were there.
Karoline Jimenez: Yes, absolutely.
*Film Excerpt from Personal Statement*
Karoline Jimenez: I always find that scene of the film quite hilarious, actually because after the class ended my student came up to me and he apologized because my intention wasn't to belittle his opinion because you know it's a free world. You are allowed to think the way that you want to think. I just wanted to ensure that he had the right information. I wanted to inform him rather than to train him to think a certain way. I wanted more for him to understand that there are definitely certain boundaries, a certain respect, that need to exist in order for the survival of all of the different communities to coexist together. But, yeah, even my freshman year of high school the guys were always the ones to sort of make fun of me because of the way that I used to act.
You know, it still kind of haunts me at night sometimes. But it doesn't trigger me because if that hadn't happened then I perhaps wouldn't be as strong as I am today. And perhaps I wouldn't be standing up so much for the LGBTQ community. And I wouldn't be so proud of representing the community that I represent. At the end of the day bullying it has to do with everyone not just kids.
Jo Reed: Juli for you, the documentary is completed. What does success look like for this documentary for you?
Juliane Dressner: One of the goals in making the film was to be able to amplify sort of the message that Karoline and Christine and Enoch were able to give their peers in high school to many, many, more students throughout the country. There are so many schools around the country that don't have enough college guidance support. There are so many low-income kids who are not going to college and getting a degree. Right? One in 10 low income students get a bachelor’s degree by the time they turn 25. And not all schools have a college going culture. And what you see in the film is that young people can be incredibly effective in creating a college going culture in their school. So what we’re hoping is that in the same way that they were able to really inspire so many of their peers to persist to college that the film can amplify that message and that we can get it in front of a lot of kids around the country and it can inspire them.
You know, we also want to raise attention to the college guidance gap and build support for filling it. People are often talking about the achievement gap and college access but often the conversation is not focused on the fact that we don't fund college counselors in most public schools. So most public schools don't have a college counselor. They have a guidance counselor and the guidance counselor to student ratio in the country the average is one guidance counselor for every 490 students. And those are guidance counselors who aren't necessarily trained in the college process which can be very complicated. And most guidance counselors say that they can spend 22 percent of their time on college guidance. So you have an incredibly complicated college and financial aid application process and not a lot of support. So one analogy I always use is I say imagine if we decided that in order to graduate high school you need to know math but we're not going to fund any math teachers. We’re just going to say “Figure it out. Maybe somebody at home can help you learn math.” It's crazy. And when people stop and think about this and they’re really open, it seems, from our experience at our premier, at least, that after they see the film they’re really open to stopping and thinking about this and they say this is outrageous. So we are hoping that the film can raise more attention about the existence of the college guidance gap. And help build support for providing more college counseling. especially in public schools that are serving low income students.
Jo Reed: And, what about for you, Enoch? At the end of this what does success look like?
Enoch Jemmott: Well, like Juli, nailed it. I definitely agree. Just getting the word out there that people can assist with this whole college process when it comes to high school students applying to schools and people could understand that. All of the kids around the world are going through stuff and why is it so hard for them? Why is there so much adversity for them trying to succeed, you know? And college is a good bridge to get you to success. And it shouldn’t be so difficult for a student to get to that road. And then hopefully the word can get out there and let people know that we can call for some reform and some positive change.
Jo Reed: Christine, do you want to add anything?
Christine Rodriguez: I feel like a big goal for me of this film is to open up that conversation. Like everybody can play a role in advocating for reform. It doesn't necessarily look like having more adults supporting students with the college process. It can also look like our peers. Young people can also do this. We should be in the forefront of this movement because we are the ones going through this. We are the essential piece of making this happen. And in order for this to work we need people that are committed to doing this work and also the funding needs to be there in order for it to work.
Jo Reed: Amen. And ending on a very happy note because I was at the AFI Documentary Film Festival, and there you all were on the red carpet. Karoline, describe that night.
Karoline Jimenez: I still wish we could do it again. I think we could all agree, right? <<laughs>> Yeah. It was definitely a very wonderful experience. All of the people that I met and that I'm now beginning to get in contact with. And other people that I know for certain that are speaking about the film and the importance of it. I just know that that definitely opened a lot of doors for us as individuals and for the film itself. So I'm being thankful. And I just can't wait for it to keep happening.
Jo Reed: Enoch?
Enoch Jemmott: Oh, it was magnificent. I still, I’m like reliving it now. I left with my cheeks sore because I was smiling so much. It was so great. And I just appreciate it. And I hope things can keep rolling and we can like meet more people and keep grinding.
Christine Rodriguez: It was very wonderful to meet all of these beautiful committed people, like inspired people. I met so many people saying “Wow, like this is so amazing what can I do to help? Who do I write the check to?” You know what I'm saying?
Jo Reed: Yeah, and that is a question. Do you guys have any thoughts about people who see the film or people who listen to this podcast and they say, “Wait a minute, I want to do something to help.” What can people do?
Juliane Dressner: So we are creating an impact campaign to maximize the impact that the film can have. And so folks should get in touch with us. They should go to our website. It's personalstatementfilm.com. We want to organize screenings for decision-makers, funders, legislators, town hall meetings where we get the right people in the room which includes young people who are working on the problem, educators, decision-makers, funders. And work sort of state-by-state, work nationally to build more support so that we are providing college counseling in schools.
Jo Reed: That is director and producer Juliane Dressner and students Christine Rodriguez, Karoline Jimenez and Enoch Jemmott talking about the documentary film Personal Statement—
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Director of the documentary Personal Statement Juliane Dressner and the cast students Karoline Jimenez, Christine Rodriguez, and Enoch Jemmott join me to talk about the film which documents the challenges New York public school students have when applying to college—especially when they are the first generation in their family to make the leap. There is a profound lack of college counselors in public schools which often leaves students on their own to negotiate applications, financial forms, and personal statements. But back in 2005, students themselves got together and created a peer counseling program where they can get the training to help not just themselves but their fellow students as well. Karoline, Christine and Enoch, although they’re facing challenges of their own and struggle with their own college possibilities, embrace their roles as peer counselors and pour their hearts and souls into helping their classmates succeed.