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Opportunities Adding Up

Yussef Guerrab
Photo by Becky Kirkland.

There’s a hint of destiny – and of an equation being solved – in NC State senior Yussef Guerrab’s college story.

By his last year of high school, Guerrab hadn’t given much thought to higher education. No one in his immediate family has earned a four-year degree. At some point, he thought, I’ll look into community college and maybe if I do well, transfer from there. 

His older sister, though, encouraged him to apply to NC State. The only reason he had confidence to try? He was enrolled at Wake STEM Early College High School, whose students take NC State courses as well as high school ones.   

“I had no idea how to apply or what FAFSA even was, but I said, well, I’m going to figure this out somehow,” Guerrab said. “It was really last minute, but my grades were OK, so why not?”

He successfully navigated the process, just meeting the final late admission deadline, but didn’t hear anything for several weeks. “It wasn’t meant for me,” Guerrab recalled thinking.

But just as he nearly gave up, he got an acceptance notice.

“I was so excited,” he said. “But one of my biggest concerns was money. It was like, OK, I’m happy, but that high didn’t last long, once I started looking more carefully at tuition and the other costs.

“Then while I was deciding if there was any way I could do this, I got a letter about Pack Promise, which I had not heard of. So, sure, let’s try it, and lo and behold, I did get the Pack Promise support. I’m very thankful. Without it, I would be so much more stressed – probably constantly working long overnight shifts somewhere, if I could even make that work, instead of the more manageable job that I have.”

Pack Promise is an initiative aimed at making college more accessible for North Carolina residents from low-income backgrounds and attracting talented scholars to NC State. The program ensures those who qualify will receive financial aid packages meeting 100% of their demonstrated need, with a combination of scholarships, grants, federal work-study jobs and loans of no more than $3,500 per year.

Guerrab also became involved in the federal TRIO program, which focuses on college access and support. Together with Pack Promise, which has some philanthropic support, TRIO has aided him in navigating details of everything from orientation to work-study. His campus opportunities are helping his NC State experience add up to a future.

“One thing I really appreciate about NC State is the rigor of the programs and the willingness of the professors to help you out and to challenge you,” he said.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Guerrab moved to Raleigh as a second-grader. He started in the College of Sciences aiming toward a degree in applied mathematics with a financial math concentration. After growing up in a family with limited money, he said, it seemed like a pathway to security.

Through TRIO, though, he was chosen for the Ronald E. McNair Scholars, a federally funded initiative removing barriers to graduate school and doctorates for underrepresented, first-generation and financially disadvantaged students. By opening doors to research mentors and projects, the program has been life changing for Guerrab, pointing him in a slightly different math direction and, eventually, perhaps a Ph.D. in public policy.

His first year at NC State, he performed applied math research related to modeling treatments for tumors. Next came a psychology and social sciences project. He’s looking for his next research opportunity. “That journey has been invaluable,” Guerrab said.

A few College of Education classes also have been impactful. He’s now pursuing a self-designed major and a minor in statistics, planning to graduate in December 2020.

“I’m interested in bridging the gap between research and policy makers – measuring the impact of educational programs, for example,” Guerrab said. “I love conceptual thinking, and I’m really interested in applying and explaining qualitative analysis in a way that demonstrates where you can actually make a difference. It’s still math, but it’s using math to help people.”

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Other key factors in his extraordinary journey have been a math department program in which, as an undergraduate, he benefited from graduate students mentoring students from underrepresented groups; his work at the University Tutorial Center; and involvement in the American Justice Corps and the Muslim Student Association.

Also influencing Guerrab’s goals: his mentoring of Latino students through his work-study job with NC State Extension’s Juntos program and of low-income students as a volunteer at Longview School, a Wake County Public School System program for students who struggled in their base schools. “I love it, even when it’s difficult,” Guerrab said.

He can talk to kids about his own challenges, including taking a year off from NC State after he lost Medicaid coverage to pay for important prescription medication. That led, temporarily, to health issues that spiraled into classroom struggles.

Guerrab already can point to definitive influence on one younger student. His brother enrolled in Harvard this fall with a full scholarship.

“I’m trying to mentor and empower students to go for more after high school – whether that’s a four-year school, a two-year school, a vocational program or whatever,” he said. “A big question I always hear is ‘how am I going to pay for it,’ and I want them to know they can find a way. I want to instill hope in them. Everything is possible.”

This story is part of an ongoing series about extraordinary opportunity at NC State. Learn more about how we’re working to empower more students from every family background and economic situation to earn an NC State degree.