Vaughn Mechanical Engineering Student Rafacely Brito ’21 Uses Her Past Experience to Help Students’ Futures

May 20, 2020 Vaughn Spotlights

Part of knowing where you want to go in life is embracing where you have been. For Rafacely Brito ’21, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at Vaughn College, accepting certain disadvantages as she grew up inspired her to encourage less fortunate students to follow their dreams.

For years, Vaughn College has been instrumental in preparing underserved middle school and high school students in the New York area for a brighter future. Through college readiness programs like Upward Bound and the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), the dream of receiving a college education, for low-income and disadvantaged students, is becoming a reality. This past February, Brito began working at Vaughn alongside a team that makes this happen. Here is her story.

Humble beginnings

At the age of 26, Brito believes that looking back on her childhood in Yonkers, New York has given her a greater appreciation of the path she is on today. Raised in a low-income family, Brito admits life was a bit challenging. Through it all, she always maintained excellent grades and excelled in math and science. As the time grew closer for Brito to attend high school, her parents decided to move the family to a better socio-economic area where she and her brother could receive a better education. “It was hard for me to leave my friends, but hindsight has shown me that my parents made the best move for us.”

College bound

After high school, Brito began a modeling career—all while having the desire to attend college. A few years later, she enrolled at Bronx Community College, where she earned her associate degree in engineering science. After graduation, she had her heart set on enlisting in the United States Air Force. “I decided to take a cruise with my friends before enlisting. That is when my life took a turn. That’s when I found Vaughn.” While on the cruise, she received an email from her high school guidance counselor about a mechanical engineering scholarship at Vaughn College. “I was so excited to learn of the scholarship,” Brito exclaimed. “The rest is history.”

Life at Vaughn

Brito embraced her engineering studies at Vaughn. She said having a curious mind made engineering the perfect fit for her career path. “I was always inquisitive,” Brito said. “I remember driving over a bridge at a young age and wondering how the bridge was built.” Although the course work is admittedly challenging, she said having professors who bring real-life industry experience makes all the difference.

Working at Vaughn

This past February, Brito began her part-time job at Vaughn as an administrative assistant for the STEP program, where she handles student outreach and administrative tasks. Little did she know that a few weeks later, the COVID-19 outbreak would shut down the campus and the country. “At first, I thought the timing couldn’t have been worse, but then I realized how the programs we offer are more important now than ever due to distance learning,” she explained. Balancing her new job with distance learning as a full-time student is challenging, to say the least. Brito thanks Vaughn’s outstanding faculty and staff, and believes the experience is better than she imagined it would be.

Positive Programs

Vaughn’s dedication to education is evident, as the College continues to run the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program and STEP, which is funded by the State of New York’s Education Department. Not sure what these programs offer? Here’s how college readiness programs help pave the way for students from low-income families:

Upward Bound

This federally funded program, also known as TRiO, provides high school students from low-income families or first-generation college students with the opportunity to sharpen their precollege skills in preparation for their college pursuits. The goal of Upward Bound is to increase secondary education completion and encourage students’ enrollment in, and graduation from, postsecondary education institutions. Vaughn currently has a five-year partnership with Richmond Hill, Grover Cleveland, and August Martin High Schools, which are all located in the Queens area.

Upward Bound helps students by providing:

  • SAT preparation
  • Tutoring and homework help
  • Counseling
  • Work-study programs
  • Cultural enrichment and field trips
  • Education and counseling services
  • College and financial aid application assistance


Founded in 1986, the purpose of STEP is to increase the number of underrepresented and disadvantaged students who are preparing to enter college by improving their readiness in the subjects of mathematics, science, technology, health-related fields and the licensed professions.

The program offers academic enrichment through services that include:

  • Core subject instruction/Regents exam preparation
  • Supervised practical training
  • Supervised research training
  • College admissions counseling
  • Standardized tests preparation
  • Career awareness/development activities

Student readiness components include:

  • Flight training
  • Robotics and coding—STEM focused
  • Hydroponics
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Enriching science and mathematics instruction
  • Providing laboratories for supervised training in research method
  • Conducting summer programs
  • Providing standardized test preparation and practice
  • Assisting students with the college application process

Brito said that helping students through the STEP program is not only rewarding but it makes her realize how fortunate today’s students are to have access to college readiness programs such as these. “I didn’t have these opportunities when I was in high school,” she said. “I’m fortunate to have the chance to instill in today’s students the importance of getting the help they need now to prepare them for college and beyond.”

Summer Programs

Throughout the year, students who participate in the programs meet on Saturdays to get the help they need. Currently, the staff is gearing up for the summer program, which will meet Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators are shifting gears by replacing field trips with virtual tours and providing offerings online. They are also planning fun and informative workshops to complement academic instruction.

“I’m proud to be a part of this program,” Brito said. “I believe we are making a difference in the lives of these students. The college readiness programs keep the students engaged, focused and off the streets. During these uncertain times, I can’t think of a better way to spend the days.”

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