Life of a Fellow: Gabby's Final Reflection

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Life of a Fellow: Gabby's Final Reflection

Today we continue our Summer Fellows' Final Reflection series. Former Fellow Gabby Nicholas shares her thoughts about how the PLUS Center changed this year. Gabby will be continuing advocating for students while living in Chicago. 

As our seniors count the days until graduation, it’s impossible not to reflect back on the year. We spent a full year with these students, advising, mentoring, and offering academic support. I’m reminded of the advising appointments, the SAT workshops, the financial aid forms, and the Center where everything happens.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking around our PLUS Center during the last few days of school, and as my eyes survey the room, I can’t help but smile. Every wall in the room is covered with something that either advertises, informs, or inspires.

This year, our team was extremely intentional in using the space to maximize student engagement. From posters advertising different post-secondary paths and upcoming campus tours to paper crafts and motivational notes made by students, our Center has no shortage of things to look at.

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From posters advertising different post-secondary paths and upcoming campus tours to paper crafts and motivational notes made by students, our Center has no shortage of things to look at.

These pieces of paper play into bigger themes at 12 Plus: consistency and collaboration. We are in our Center every day with our students, and they’ve come to recognize our presence as a constant within the school. The posters serve a similar purpose: students can rely on getting information from both us and the material we have scattered around the room. During lunch, it’s common to see students flipping through the scholarship binder, or checking the senior wall to find out which students applied for college/trade school.

Similar to a word search puzzle, our Center has information, but students have to take the initiative to find the material and read it.

Similar to a word search puzzle, our Center has information, but students have to take the initiative to find the material and read it.

 

In regards to collaboration, some of my favorite memories this year have been when we laid out crafting supplies on a table during lunch, and encouraged students to participate in the project. Around Thanksgiving, we made hand turkeys with our students. Before Winter Break, one of our sophomores taught everyone how to make paper snowflakes. Days after the project, students would come in with their friends and make them guess which craft was theirs.

The PLUS Center isn’t our space, it’s the students’.

Before moving to Philadelphia for my Fellowship, I was living in the small college town of Gainesville. I had never lived in a big city, worked in a school, or heard the word “jawn.” After this year, I can successfully say that I’ve become familiar with SEPTA, learned the ins and outs of our high school, and finally understood how to use “jawn” in a sentence. Those things aside, it’s been an incredible experience to hold such a unique role in our school and contribute to its mission of student success.

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Life of a Fellow: Emma's Final Reflection

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Life of a Fellow: Emma's Final Reflection

This week former Fellow Emma Thorp shares her thoughts about continuing the tradition of Cookie Monday this year as we continue our Summer Fellow's Final Reflections series. Emma will be continuing on at Penn Treaty High School this year as Site Director.

Cookie Monday

Scattered chocolate chips. Sugar cookie crumbs. A hollow, ceramic cow.

These images all add up to a constant that has comforted me during a year where I changed more than I thought I could. These last nine months have made me grow in ways I didn’t know I could grow. I learned to talk to people in ways I never knew existed. I have never asked questions better than I do right now, and I give people much more informative answers when they ask me questions. This year has altered both my perception of myself and the way I perceive my surroundings. But something that has both pushed and allowed me to stay calm in a constantly changing environment has been Cookie Mondays. This tradition, which was started by Fellow Jenn Thoman last year, was something that stood out to me last year when I was volunteering for 12+. I was impressed by Jenn’s dedication, and decided it was something I was ready to commit to. I am so glad I did.

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"I have learned that you have to ask for help to get it, and the same is true for extra cookies."

Every Sunday night I soothingly roll out three to four dozen soft dough balls and lay them out on two baking sheets. Every Monday I bring the resulting confections into the PLUS Center for students. That is constant. What changes is the students’ negotiation tactics for getting more than one cookie. I insist that everyone only take one treat to maximize the number of students that get cookies. The ways that students convince me to give them multiple cookies are silly but also impressive. One student used to come in multiple times every Monday claiming it had not been him in the Center earlier who had gotten a cookie, but his identical cousin or brother. Students often bargain with me, asking if they can have another cookie if they come back at the end of the day. I love hearing students fake groan when they pull out two cookies that are stuck together and facetiously say, “Oh no, Miss, I got two cookies, what am I going to do?” To a certain extent I want to encourage their enterprising spirit. A student taught me a phrase this year that has really stuck with me. She told me, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” I have learned that lesson time and time again while advocating for students. You can’t get a fee waiver or deposit deferral unless you call the admissions department and ask for it. I have found that if you are making very specific requests, and can justify why you deserve to be answered, people are often willing to give you what you want, whether it’s answers or extra grant money. It’s a lesson that I will transfer wherever I go after 12+, and a lesson I want students to learn as well. That’s why I let students return at the end of the day and have another cookie if there are any left. I have learned that you have to ask for help to get it, and the same is true for extra cookies. If you want it, you have to ask for it.

Another element of what makes me love Cookie Mondays is the way students react to seeing cookies in the Center.  The tradition of Cookie Monday is not a new one. As stated earlier, Jenn Thoman, a previous Fellow, started the tradition last year. I decided to continue the tradition after witnessing first hand how much students look forward to starting the week with a sweet treat. Their reactions have continued to be joyous and celebratory. One of the students I worked with closely came in and did not initially realize there were cookies in the Cookie Cow. When I told him to look inside the cow, he was so excited he did a dance when he opened the cookie jar and saw the treasure inside. I’ve given a student the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies I made because he often bakes for his family and wanted to share the same treats I made for him with his family.

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I appreciate the students’ excitement but I don’t understand it. You would think that by June they would expect cookies every Monday. Yet most of them still act like every Monday is the first time there have ever been cookies in the PLUS Center, even though this tradition has been continuing for two years now. It’s these moments that make me so appreciative of this year with 12+. Our students are complex. They are innovative and they know how to negotiate. They like cookies and they will say what they have to to get more of them, but they will also say thank you while they walk away with a cookie in each hand.

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Life of a Fellow: Selena's Final Reflection

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Life of a Fellow: Selena's Final Reflection

This is the second post in our Summer Fellow's Final Reflections series in which Fellows look back at their year working with 12+ and share with us their feelings about this year. This week we hear from Selena, who is moving on to a research position at Penn after a successful year at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. 

*Names have been changed to protect the students’ privacy.*

On the very first day of school, I was introduced to B. On this first day, the KHSA team runs RAISE workshops for KHSA freshman students to prepare them for starting high school. In our workshops, we ask senior students to volunteer and give advice to freshman students. B, who volunteers to help with more school functions than any student I know, had volunteered to help out with our RAISE workshop. “As seniors, what advice would you have for our freshman?” we asked our senior volunteers. I still remember B’s advice to students: “You have to do you,” he said. He then told them about his own freshman year, remembering himself as someone who got in trouble at school often. He told them about how he had changed since freshman year, about how he had become more attentive and respectful in classes. B had already changed and grown immensely since his freshman year by the time I met him.  Throughout his senior year, I saw him grow and mature even more.

During the college application season in the fall semester, I got to know B better as we worked on his college applications together frequently. I learned about B’s dream of being a Civil Rights lawyer in Philadelphia. He specifically dreamed of defending victims of hate crimes. B also came to the Plus Center for other reasons, such as to tell us about the latest work he’d done for planning senior year events. Sometimes he would come in simply to talk about music or his latest dance routine with us.  We had, at times, more difficult advising conversations too: conversations about how to come to school on time; how to balance work and school obligations; how to navigate tense interactions with classmates and staff.

In the spring, I saw him deal with some of these difficult interactions. He came to ask for advice from us about how to handle these situations. He explained that he recognized that adults in his life might be able to provide guidance about these issues. I was so impressed when he remained composed when he was confronted with some of these situations. I could visibly see the difference from how he might have reacted at the beginning of the year.

In the spring, B wasn’t accepted to his first-choice school of Temple University. I was worried that B would lose hope, and I even felt like I had let him down. But, rather than be disheartened, I watched B become excited about the option of going to Community College of Philadelphia and transferring to a 4-year school. Although CCP is an amazing option for many of our students, it is sometimes difficult for them to choose the path of community college, especially when they see peers committing to 4-year schools. Rather than be disappointed with his path, however, B embraced this opportunity to attend CCP, and supported his peers who were choosing CCP as well.. Even when classmates mentioned that they had received acceptances from Temple, B congratulated them and cheered on his peers: “That’s so awesome, I’m really happy for you!” he told a classmate who had committed to Temple.

I wasn’t surprised when B soon became very proactive about attending CCP. He would come into the center and tell me that he had already scheduled his placement test and was setting up appointments with academic advisors. “Are you visiting CCP everyday or something?!?” I would ask jokingly. But truly I was so impressed with how he had dived right into this option of CCP.  One day, he told me that he had to make an appointment with an advisor to change his major. I lit up when he said which major he would be pursuing: Communications. As someone who majored in Communications in college, I was so happy when I heard this. All year I had thought that B would thrive in this field of study, and I’m so excited to see what he does with his degree.

Although much of my time working with B was related to academics, I learned much more about what it means to be an advisor from my interactions with B that didn’t focus on academics alone. Rather, I learned that being an advisor means understanding our students through and through. It means learning about their families, their friends, their work life, and their interests. Sometimes, being an advisor meant helping B with college applications, but sometimes it simply meant brainstorming ideas for B’s next pep rally dance routine. Other times it meant giving B advice about how to balance work and school, or about how to navigate peer interactions. And sometimes it meant that B gave me advice about what I should choose as my quote for the school yearbook, or what the other 12 Plus staff members and I should wear when we chaperone prom. It was in moments like these that B taught me what it meant to be an advisor: These times when parts of our students’ personalities and circumstances revealed themselves to us. These key details about their lives that an advisor needs to understand so that we can best support our students on a path that fits them and their dreams.  

Whenever I hang out with my friends and the topic of my work with 12+ comes up, they always ask about B. “How is B doing? What is B doing after graduating?” they ask me. When they say this, my heart always warms at the thought that B has people rooting for him that he doesn’t even know.  I feel even more proud when I think that I am one of the lucky people who did get to know him this year; one of the people who got to play a small part in his journey. As graduation day nears, I have this feeling towards all of my students. I know that they will all have a team of people cheering for them as they walk across the stage; a team of teachers, school administrators, family, and friends. I am so thankful that 12 Plus and KHSA allowed me to have a spot on our students’ team this year.

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Life of a Fellow: Jesse's Final Reflection

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Life of a Fellow: Jesse's Final Reflection

This is our first post in our Summer Fellow's Final Reflections series in which Fellows look back on their year and share what they learned. Our first post focuses on Jesse's story, who will be continuing his education at Arcadia University with hopes of becoming a high school principal. 

It was around Thanksgiving when a student with autism, with whom I had become quite close, told me that he wanted to give a speech to the school. He felt as though he and his classmates were mistreated and wanted to change this. So for two or three days we talked at length about what he wanted to say. Over a few hours together, the first draft of the speech was finished and we began practicing that day. His emotion showed through phenomenally. Actually, it came through almost too clearly. After years of ridicule and exclusion, he had every right to feel angry about the way that he was treated by his peers. However it was important for him to not allow all of this negative emotion to come out at once, for when it did his message got muddled in the anger. So we spent time on calmly reading the speech. After about two weeks of practice, his speech became quite good. We began practicing in front of an audience larger than myself and his aide. At first it was just a few other teachers, and then he practiced in front of his class. A few of his classmates were so moved that they wanted to give speeches too. Three more students came up to me over the next few days to ask if they could also write speeches. By mid-December we were a small team practicing. There was a total of one speech and three poems that were being read everyday.

One of the students was naturally a very talented orator; the other three had difficulty speaking at first. It was a process in helping these students to find their authentic voice. At first one of the students struggled to converse with me one-on-one, let alone speak at a podium. She did not trust herself enough to speak loudly enough to hear. Another student was often so nervous that she would break out laughing when reciting her poem, often unable to finish. But with time they grew more comfortable. Their aide and I would set up in the auditorium with the students on the stage, and the students would just practice the speeches over and over again. By the time that Winter Break was over, there was a noticeable improvement from the students. The students were prepared to give their speeches at an assembly in mid-January, but the assembly kept on getting pushed back. The students grew discouraged by this and worried that they would never have the opportunity to deliver their speeches. The aide and I continued practicing with the students, telling them that this was the exact reason why the speeches had to be given and we promised them they would have the opportunity to present.

After a few weeks of practicing without knowing what exactly for, we were informed that the students would have the opportunity to present at the Black History Month assembly. This reinvigorated the team and even inspired another student with autism from another class to join in. With the platform of Black History Month, we decided that this would be a perfect opportunity for the students to advocate for their own civil rights. It came back full circle to what the first student initially asked me: to help him speak to his population’s mistreatment within the school. The newest member of our group was going to open, and he and I wrote a speech that touched on the great leaders and the message of the Civil Rights Movement. With this addition, the team became complete and the group grew stronger. It took just over ten minutes for them to take the platform of Black History Month and then advocate for their own inclusion in the school’s community. We had an opening speech introducing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and comparing it to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then a poem called “Exclusion,” followed by a poem called “Everyone is Equal,” followed by a poem called “Love Yourself,” capped off by the initial speech that advocated for Hill-Freedman World Academy to become a “No Judgment Zone.”

As the day grew closer, the biggest problem that we had to deal with was nerves. It was an incredible opportunity to remind these students how many times they had perfectly recited their speeches, and that whether it was just four of us listening or four hundred nothing changed. The more that we practiced, the better the students got. At first there were times that I doubted whether or not this would actually be able to happen, but as I witnessed the students’ preparation and growth it was clear that my doubts were unwarranted and due to my own ignorance. By the time that they began to doubt themselves, I was able to tell them with absolute belief that they could do this. The day before the speeches, we practiced one more time and I told them that I wanted to take a picture with them. “No matter how it goes tomorrow, I just want for you guys to know how proud I am of you.”

During the assembly I stood in the back of the full auditorium so that if they got nervous they could just look at me. I was probably more nervous than they were, watching the assembly go by as their time to shine grew closer. It felt like forever before I saw the five students take the stage, but when they walked up there all I could feel was incredible pride. It was a feeling that I do not remember really feeling before, being so tremendously proud of a group that I was not a part of. As they walked up to the microphone it did not even matter that they were in the wrong order. I thought back to the first time I saw them up there, and despite my greatest efforts not to, I started to cry. It wasn’t like a sobbing; it was like someone had turned on a faucet and forgot to turn it off.

Each student stepped up and perfectly delivered their speeches, in the exact opposite order that we had practiced them in. The group started with a bang, getting a standing ovation as “NO JUDGEMENT ZONE!” was chanted by all throughout the auditorium. Then the poems were read beautifully, and then we tied all of the previous sentiments back to the assembly that we were sitting in. The students didn’t look at me once, and by the time they were done I was still crying. I wasn’t sad, in fact I was quite the opposite, yet I could not do anything but cry. I was just feeling so much. I went to the bathroom to wash up when the speeches were done, and then I went and gave them a hug.

12+ is not about solving our students’ problems as I thought when I first joined the organization. There are such tremendous obstacles that our students face that we could not possibly alleviate them all. But I know that for the rest of their lives, these five students will never forget when they moved an entire audience with their words. They will forever remember how they overcame their own doubts and fears, and that with hard work and passion the realm of possibility becomes nearly infinite. I know that I will never forget their work ethic, dedication, and their words. The best parts about our organization cannot be quantified, just like our students cannot be defined by their GPA or SAT score. It is the relationships we build, the time we put in, and the tears we shed so that our students may be able to experience just a moment that will last an entire lifetime.

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Life of a Fellow: Thu

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Life of a Fellow: Thu

“I’m smart, Miss. I have so many ideas, thoughts, and opinions, and I can express them all so well in my language. But I just can’t in English.” The student described that feeling of voicelessness as a burning desire in his heart to speak and express himself. He recounted several situations when he couldn’t muster the courage to just say what he wanted. The burning desire to express grows, but it constantly gets blown out by his situation of fear and hopelessness. “It’s a never-ending cycle,” he dejectedly uttered.

He proceeded to describe the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant student who aspires to fight on a level playing field with his peers; however, on far too many occasions, the language barrier evoked fear and didn’t allow him to even set foot on the field. He acknowledged that there were days filled with opportunities to prove to his teachers and peers how much he can contribute and add value to the classroom setting. Those days were also filled with fear and anxiety when attempts to just say a few words were halted because of the language barrier. “Maybe I should return to my home country,” he suggested.

My heart overflowed with pain because no one should feel as if they do not have a voice. No one should have to hold back their words due to fear of being judged or misunderstood. No one should have to keep in their important and valuable thoughts and concerns. My mind flipped through the pages of memories of also not being able to fully speak English when I started my education in America. I remember sitting in mainstreamed classrooms and not understanding what my teachers or peers were saying. I always had questions about tasks and homework assignments and wanted to raise my hand to ask my teachers to slow down, but I never did because I was afraid of rejection. My heart ached because the student was experiencing a similar situation to the one I experienced. I wanted to advise the student, “No, you’re going to be fine. I will be your voice. Use me.” I wanted to take away the fear and anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with transitioning to a new country and culture. But that is not the purpose of my job at 12 Plus.

As Fellows, our mission is to empower our students to reach high for academic success. “No, you’re not going to learn English if you let fear stop you from learning it,” I advised the student. From that day, I pushed him to read everything in English, watch YouTube videos and online streams in English, engage in conversations with his peers, and join the 12 Plus team to college visits. Whenever he came into the Center, my team and I would often encourage him to have conversations with us in English. The ladies of 12 Plus would ask him about his plans for the weekend, and his answers would get more detailed and expressive as the school year progressed. I remember asking him where to find the best pho restaurant in Kensington. “Home cooked pho is the dopest, Miss! ” he exclaimed.

Students after a college informational session and visit to Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professionals.

Students after a college informational session and visit to Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professionals.

A day approached when he ran into the PLUS Center and said, “Miss, I push the other students to speak, read, and write everything in English. They won’t learn how to talk in English if they don’t do those things.” This reaffirmed the reason why I pushed him to expose himself to English-speaking culture. I believed in his ability to learn and grow, and I expressed to him that I did. Not only was he able to act on the challenges that my team and I set for him, but he also inspired his peers to take on those same challenges. I was so proud that he was able to learn that fear is the single most powerful obstacle to learning.

Students waiting for the train to go visit La Salle University.

Students waiting for the train to go visit La Salle University.

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