'Achieve helped me win Harvard place'

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A programme helping young people aim higher and achieve their ambitions has been re-launched by Notting Hill Housing for the Aylesbury Estate.

Achieve was established by Chris Cotton, Community Connector for the Aylesbury team, and is now open to 14 to 25-year-olds in Southwark. It offers a mix of one-to-one support, mentoring and group work and is tailored specifically to the needs of each individual.

Zena Agha, a Notting Hill tenant who joined the project as a teenager, is now preparing to travel to America after winning a scholarship to the prestigious Harvard University to study Middle Eastern Studies.

Zena, now 22, said: “I’m kind of apprehensive at the moment but I recognise it’s a very big opportunity. I have done a year in Paris already for my studies and while I was there worked for the Iraqi embassy and UNESCO. I then felt I wanted to try my hand further away and America came to mind.”

Only nine people out of 250 were chosen for the $80,000 Kennedy Scholarship, and without that she would have been unable to accept her place on the course.

It has been five years since Zena, who lives with her mother in Kensington and Chelsea, first got in touch with Chris Cotton, the founder of Notting Hill’s Achieve programme.

“I received a letter when I was 17 about the Notting Hill Housing Youth Forum, but I couldn’t attend as it was on my birthday. I called Chris and he was really helpful. I dropped in for a chat about what I wanted, and he produced a list of all the things I could do to achieve it.

“I’d had the ambition but not the direction. Chris gave me that.

“He spoke to me about Operation Black Vote, which campaigns to get more ethnic minorities taking part in politics, and encouraged me to apply for an internship despite being under their age limit. I was chosen and became the youngest intern they’d ever had.

“Chris was a mentor for me. He really helped me grow and think beyond just being a teenager.

“Achieve gave me opportunities I wouldn’t even know were there. It made me think bigger than school, bigger than my community. I started thinking about things internationally. It developed me into the person I wanted to become.

“As someone from an immigrant community, my mum was struggling with everything she had on her plate and couldn’t help me with my university application as her English wasn’t good enough. Chris and Achieve helped me in ways my mum couldn’t, simply because she didn’t have the experience.”

Zena is now urging young people from the Aylesbury to make the most of the programme.

“I would recommend Achieve to anyone. Young people are given certain opportunities but aren’t urged to go beyond that. We are encouraged to get good grades, and to keep out of trouble, but Achieve takes you that one step further. Yes, be a good student, but aim higher.

“There is too much of a focus on academic performance but some people have their talent in sport, art or other areas. Chris was really good at getting the best out of those people too.”

For more information about Achieve, text ACHIEVE and your name to 07775 411 209, contact Chris Cotton at ccotton@nhg.org.uk or call 07775 411 209 and we will call you back, answer your questions and book a time to meet.

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