As recently as 2006, Yahya Alyafai had never set foot on U.S. soil and didn’t know a word of English. He arrived in New York as a teenager from his native Yemen, joining his father, who had emigrated in 1990s. His grandfather had come here as an exchange student a generation earlier.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” he recalls. “I thought I’d be moving into an American dream house, and going to a school with a playground and my own locker.”
While his introduction to American life didn’t quite live up to his dream, Alyafai gained fluency in English, graduated from high school, and enrolled at BMCC within the space of two years. He is now a junior at City College, where he is majoring in political science and economics.
From handshakes to resumes
Along the way, Alyafai was also awarded a two-year fellowship from New York Needs You (NYNY), a program that provides high-potential, first-generation college students with mentoring services, professional development workshops, and networking events as well as a professional development grant.
“It’s an amazing program,” he says. “You learn everything from the proper way to shake hands with a business contact to how to write a resume. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet and learn from people at every level of government.”
The journey that would take Alyafai to a new life in New York began in the southern Yemeni village of Yafea, where he was born and raised.
“Around the age of 12, I moved to a nearby city to attend the Albelhani School, which was very competitive and highly regarded—sort of like the Stuyvesant of Yemen.” After graduating and arriving in New York, he applied to college and was accepted by Brooklyn College and BMCC.
“I had absolutely no idea of the difference between a senior college and a community college,” he says. “So I chose BMCC because of its location.” He still laughs when he thinks back on his decision and the rationale behind it. But he has no regrets.
“BMCC gave me a great experience,” he says. “One of the things that meant so much to me is that, as an immigrant, I never felt alone. I was surrounded by first-generation students, many from other countries. These were ambitious, highly motivated people working hard to achieve their dreams. For me, coming to school here gave me hope every day for a brighter future.”
Alyafai’s teachers were also a key factor in his success—and in acclimating to life in U.S. “I had many wonderful professors,” he says. “But three were especially helpful and generous with their time—Holllis Glaser, of the Speech Department; Melissa Brown, in the Political Science Department, and Anna King, an adjunct English instructor.”
Over the summer, Alyafai will take part in NYNY workshops and complete an internship with the New York City Department of Small Business Development. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he hopes to go on to graduate school—and possibly, a career in politics.
“Yemenis have settled in every corner of the world—in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.,” he says. “But what makes America unique is that it’s a country where you can be treated as a human being. No matter who you are or where you came from, there is no barrier to achieving your dreams. I think that’s why my family came here. I know it’s why I’m here.”