In the ten years that Say Yes Buffalo has been serving Buffalo Public School students, the program has grown from a college scholarship program to one with vastly expanded programs to support students from grade school through college. As the program has grown and changed, so too have its earliest graduates, but their connection to the organization remains strong!
Say Yes Buffalo’s mission is to remove barriers to educational attainment, workforce participation, and economic mobility for students in public and charter schools. It was established by a diverse group of community leaders to strengthen the Western New York economy by investing in the education of Buffalo’s future workforce.
Cheyenne Ketter-Franklin was a high school senior when Say Yes came to Bennett High School in the 2012 -2013 school year to promote the newly introduced college scholarships. She was thrilled to learn that she may be eligible for tuition assistance, knowing that assisting with sending a fifth child to college could be a financial stretch for her parents. For Cheyenne, the scholarship was critical for her to complete UB’s 3/2 program that enabled her to get both a BS in Business Administration and her MBA, but the guidance on the college application process was just as important. With Say Yes located in her high school, Cheyenne was able to easily access services to help her through the process and assist her in figuring out her major.
“At first it seemed too good to be true,” Cheyenne recounts, noting that there was no track record for Say Yes when she was a senior, “It really means a lot to me to know that people I have never met care enough to invest in students like me.”
Today, Cheyenne is working in marketing for Goldberg Segalla, a locally-based, national law firm after working in the nonprofit sector at the Buffalo History Museum. She was attracted to the law firm for the opportunity to specialize in public relations and the significant investment they are making in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work that is important to her as a biracial professional. She also has made a conscious choice to get involved in Say Yes to give back to the organization and to acknowledge those donors who supported her education. As a Say Yes alum, she is now leading efforts to formally organize other alumni to better network, socialize, and support Say Yes through fundraising.
Jesana Gadley began working with Say Yes as a sophomore at Frederick Law Olmsted High School in 2012 so she had more time to take advantage of additional programs offered as she moved through high school and college. She credits Say Yes with helping her narrow down her college choice to Canisius College and helping her land internships at Blue Cross, Blue Shield of WNY, and at Teach for America.
After completing a Master’s in Strategic Communications at American University, Jesana is now at M&T Bank the Community Engagement & Strategy Lead for the Tech Academy, a job she found through her Say Yes connections. Her job allows her to give back in ways that her Say Yes mentors have done for her, by working with those who need upskilling or reskilling in technical fields and connecting them with guaranteed jobs.
Staying connected with Say Yes beyond high school was critical to Jesana’s career path as she notes, “Circling back to Say Yes for mentoring and support, as well as for internships, helped me gain clarity on what I wanted to do and how to navigate effectively to reach my goals.”
Like Cheyenne, Jesana marvels at the ever-growing list of programs and supports that Say Yes continues to build to support its students, noting that the nonprofit excels at listening to students to better understand their needs and then responding quickly.
Jennifer Ray has come full circle, having been an early Say Yes Scholar after graduating high school in 2013 and now working full-time for the organization. During her college years, she relied on Medaille College (Now Medaille University) counselors for advice and mentoring but got reacquainted with Say Yes when she discovered their internship program as a college senior. Jennifer had studied to be a veterinarian but discovered an interest in law while in college. Through the Say Yes Internship & Career Pathways Program Jennifer applied to law internships. She landed a paid internship with a local law firm while also working at Project SOAR at Cradle Beach, an Americorp program, both of which offered her full-time employment once the internship was completed. By staying in touch with her Say Yes Internship program, Jennifer learned about career opportunities at Say Yes and jumped at the chance. In early 2020, she was hired as an Internship and Career Pathways Program Assistant and has now moved on to be a Career Coach in the Youth Apprenticeship program at South Park and Hutch Tech through Say Yes Buffalo
Like her alumni counterparts, Jennifer is eager to stay connected and to give back as an alum as well as through her job. Jennifer says that she never saw herself working for Say Yes but when the opportunity came up if felt right.
According to Jennifer, “Say Yes is really life-changing. They expose students to spaces and faces that they would never have had a chance to encounter before. And, they have come such a long way compared to when I was in high school – younger students are so fortunate to have many expanded opportunities!”
Now that COVID is a lesser threat, plans for in-person events for alumni are underway, providing more opportunities for Cheyenne, Jesana, Jennifer, and their fellow scholars to reconnect and give back to the organization that helped them launch their careers and their commitment to giving back.