Like many adolescents, Chjana McNair struggled with acne. She would wash and scrub her skin, eager to clear blackheads, whiteheads and pimples.
“I don’t want anything to be on my face,” she said. “Taking care of my skin is really important to me.”
Ms. McNair, who does not wear makeup, developed her own skin care regimen when she was in middle school, and maintains it to this day. “Having good skin is really important,” she said. “I just want to see me.”
After months of trying to find the right approach for her sensitive skin, Ms. McNair overheard someone on the street talking about a visit to a dermatologist.
She did some research, and by the time she entered high school, she had settled on a career path. She dreamed of studying dermatology and helping others address their skin problems.
Encouraged by her mother to take her studies seriously, Ms. McNair excelled in high school. She finished a semester early, when she was 17, after accumulating enough credits to graduate, she said.
Tired of living in New York, Ms. McNair, a Harlem native, applied to New England College, a private liberal arts school in New Hampshire. The college waived its application fees, and gave her the best scholarship. She also fell in love with its small class sizes and the diversity of its student body.
Now 19, Ms. McNair is a sophomore studying health science.
“I’m surrounded by a lot of nature,” Ms. McNair said of her college life on a visit home for Thanksgiving. She has spotted deer and chipmunks on campus, she said, and expects to see bears, too.
While it took time for her to adjust to the New England weather and the dining hall, Ms. McNair has enjoyed her transition to college. She shares a dorm room with her best friend from home. Her boyfriend, whom she met in high school, is also a student at the college.
However, one question nags at her: How will she afford the next semester?
“Keeping up with tuition is also pretty hard, because I had to find a lot of scholarships,” she said. Ms. McNair is supported by her mother, who does not work and receives disability benefits.
The youngest of four siblings, Ms. McNair is close to her older sister and brothers, but they have their own families and cannot help with tuition or co-sign loans.
Her family, she said, keeps her motivated to excel in school: “They’re all rooting for me, and I just want to make all of them proud.”
Ms. McNair received $27,000 in scholarships for the current academic year in addition to $9,500 in federal student loans. She also received nearly $6,500 in grants, including a $6,195 federal Pell grant. A job at the campus library is paying her $2,000 for the school year through the federal work-study program. But she still owed a few thousand dollars each semester to cover the $57,000 annual cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, room and board.
“It helped me because I had no other way to pay for my tuition,” she said. Ms. McNair uses a credit card that she pays off each month in the hope that she can build up her credit and apply for a small loan.
Ms. McNair also received help from Hope Leadership Academy, a college and career training center run by Children’s Aid. She attended the academy’s after-school programs for several years, starting when she was in the ninth grade.
She is especially grateful for the public speaking skills that she learned at the academy, saying that the mock job interviews “taught me how to calm down” and feel comfortable when addressing large groups.
In her freshman year, she received a $5,000 scholarship from the academy.
Ms. McNair’s mother “didn’t play,” pushing her daughter to excel in school. Good grades were “a way to continuously make her happy,” Ms. McNair said, adding that her mother wanted her to have a better education and more opportunities than she had.
Always a dedicated student, Ms. McNair filled her time outside school with step dance, gymnastics, kickboxing and volleyball. “My mom and sister never kept me in the house,” she said.
Together, Ms. McNair and her mother have been saving money to apply for a monthly payment plan in case Ms. McNair does not receive any outside scholarships in the spring.
Next summer, she hopes to land a dermatology internship and to work as a cashier at a Fairway grocery store in her neighborhood. She expects years of medical school to follow after she finishes college, and she wants to stay on the East Coast — as long as she moves out of the city.
Ms. McNair encourages other ambitious students to stay focused on their goals. “You have to remember what you’re there for,” she said.