HEOP, Center for International Programs

Traveling abroad to "find yourself" is a cliche. But sometimes, that's exactly what happens

Aliyah Wright '21 is black. That's not her identity, but it is the color of her skin. It's part of her truth. African American? That never felt authentic. It didn't apply. Aliyah's mom grew up in New York, and her dad is from Maryland. Aliyah's distant ancestors may have lived in Africa. So what? It was an ocean away from her American existence in Queens. Aliyah never once felt African American... until she went to Africa.   

Through her association with Siena's Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), Aliyah was afforded the opportunity to study abroad. She didn't want to go Europe - too popular. And she decided against South Africa - the program was too big. She settled on Namibia - a country in Southern Africa that borders the Atlantic Ocean. 

Aliyah is the first person from her family to go to college. She's a minority on the Siena campus, and there were times, especially as a freshman, when she felt out of place. But as soon as she stepped foot in Namibia, she blended in. It was an utterly unfamiliar feeling. In fact, until she opened her mouth (and spoke with a distinctly American accent) she was often mistaken for a local. Every other student in Aliyah's international program was white. They were in the minority, the tourists. Aliyah didn't go to Namibia to find herself because she didn't realize a piece of herself had been missing. But it had been. And making that connection this spring was a life-changing revelation. 

Aliyah intends to get her master's in social work. She plans to work with children, and she had the chance to do so during an internship in Namibia. Her semester abroad was cut short when all students were called home because of the emerging pandemic. But she plans to go back. She did eat ostrich, marvel at cheetahs, and scale a mountain in Cape Town, but there's so much she didn't see (including a scheduled spring break trip to Tanzania). Back in New York, though, she's holding on to a piece of Africa. She's an African American - and for the first time in her life, that feels right. 

This summer, Aliyah will be a head counselor for the HEOP/AOP Summer Program, a mandatory college immersion program for all incoming HEOP/AOP freshmen. The students typically live on campus for five weeks while attending classes, workshops, tutoring, and weekend activities. Because of the pandemic, the program will be virtual this year, but Aliyah and the other peer counselors will still be assisting students with their transition from high school to college. Three summers ago, Aliyah moved into campus at the start of the program, with her mom, Alisha's, help (right). She credits that program, and the resources provided through HEOP, with so much of her college success. 

"The HEOP/AOP Program has provided me with so many opportunities and I am so grateful for the staff. I would not have been able to travel to Namibia if it weren’t for HEOP/AOP."

Aliyah Wright '21