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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Life of a Fellow: Gabby

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Life of a Fellow: Gabby

“Financially, it makes more sense for you to start at community college. The gap between financial aid and tuition costs is too great.”

One of the resources given to our students during a college conference that explains the process of paying for school.

One of the resources given to our students during a college conference that explains the process of paying for school.

This is a hard conversation that we often have with our students, but it’s also one that I was on the receiving end of during my senior year of high school. I attended a high school that really pushed 4-year college educations. We were told to attend a university, but the financial aspect was often left out of the conversation. After applying to a handful of schools in Florida, I got a few acceptance letters, but none of the aid packages were generous enough to be financially feasible for my family.

At the time, my FAFSA Estimated Family Contribution was $0, much like most of the students we serve. The cost to attend my top choice was around $27,500 a year. In order to fill the gap between the tuition amount and any financial aid I received, I would have had to take out over $20,000 in loans every year, totaling $80,000 in debt over four years. On the other hand, the cost to attend my local community college was $0 because of federal and state aid. Although the best choice may seem obvious, this is a hard decision to make, especially when the student has their mind set on a specific university.

Towards the end of my senior year, my family and I decided that I would start my post-secondary path at community college.

When I began classes in the fall of my freshman year, I wasn’t super excited. Like most of my peers, when I thought of college, I pictured living in a dorm, eating in a dining hall, attending football games, and taking classes in a lecture hall with 200+ classmates. But after a few weeks of being at my community college, I soon discovered a thriving student life, a great honors program, and the opportunity to carve a place for myself on campus.

In addition to the financial benefits, starting at a community college often sets our students up for success in incredible ways. Most community colleges boast smaller class sizes, unique opportunities for professional growth, and the chance to start over academically. During my first year at college, I attended three leadership conferences, studied abroad in Austria, joined campus organizations, and started my own campus newspaper.

Academically, the smaller class sizes and individualized attention from professors were a huge benefit to me. I enjoyed the fact that some of my classes had 10 students, and I recognized everyone who hung out in the honors college. My high school GPA was good, but nothing to brag about. But when I graduated from my community college, my GPA was extremely competitive and helped me land a scholarship to transfer to the University of Florida to complete my bachelor’s degree.

Seniors attend a CCP information session during College Week at Penn Treaty.

Seniors attend a CCP information session during College Week at Penn Treaty.

At most community colleges, there are unique support systems put in place to increase retention rates among the student body they serve. The Community College of Philadelphia offers career services, educational support services, counseling, academic advising, and several organizations catered to their student demographic. A representative from CCP’s Center for Male Engagement visited our school and held an information session for our senior guys. He spoke about the community and levels of support that were available through the center, including life skills workshops and career and leadership development training.

At Penn Treaty, every senior is required to apply to the Community College of Philadelphia. Whether it’s their first choice, their safety school, or just a graduation requirement they need to fulfill, CCP is an option we want every single one of our students to have access to. As a proud graduate of a community college, I’m always happy to talk to students about my experience. It’s a path that we often encourage our students to pursue, and one that I am happy I took.

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Life of a Fellow: Emma

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Life of a Fellow: Emma

Planning and executing the 2017 Penn Treaty Career Day was one of the best parts of the year so far. To me, our Career Fair was a perfect representation of what 12+ is: We try to give students the resources they need while also changing the culture of the schools we are placed in. The Career Fair merged these two directives seamlessly. We were able to connect students with people working in the fields they are interested in and give students valuable insight about how to get started in their desired careers. One of our seniors recently started volunteering with the SPCA after she met a representative from the organization at the fair. But we were also able to help students who had less of an idea of what they want to do long-term. Many students had no idea what a Human Resources Representative was, but after the fair, several students considered it as a serious job possibility. On both an individual and a school-wide level, we were able to expand the limits of what our students see as possible. It was incredibly encouraging to have the school principal, Mr. Howell, see the fair and testify that 12+ is so influential in changing the school’s environment by coordinating activities like College Week, Career Day, and college information sessions. It’s been amazing to witness how hosting these events has inspired so many students to widen their horizons and make positive change happen.

Students talk to an architect.

Students talk to an architect.

We were able to bring in over 25 career professionals to our Career Fair. These amazing volunteers prompted students to consider careers they had not previously thought about. When students entered the PLUS Center during the career fair, many students did not know which career representative to talk to. Several students responded to the question, “What kind of job would you like to have?” with shrugs and “I don’t know"s. When we encountered these students, we started asking, “Well, what’s your favorite class?” If the student answered, “Math,” then we steered her toward the product engineer or the data analyst. If the student answered, “English,” we encouraged him to have a conversation with a Marketing Representative or a Campaign Director. It was great to have so many career options to show students!

Students speak to a chef who started her own business.

Students speak to a chef who started her own business.

Another great part of the fair was that we were able to show students that it is possible to turn your passion into a career. At Penn Treaty, we have lots of students who love art, but we know that field can be a difficult field to find a stable job in. We were able to bring in an architect and two videographers, who were able to advise students how to find a productive way to express their creativity. We have so many students that are athletics-oriented, but we want our students to consider building career paths that don’t center around being a professional athlete. At our career fair, students had the opportunity to talk to personal trainers and sports broadcasters, and learn what it takes to turn their love of sports into a career. We were even able to bring in an EMT who had past experience in the automotive world. He was able to talk to students not just about what it’s like to have a career in the medical field, but what it’s like to work in the automotive industry as well. He was a great resource because he was able to talk about a wide variety of interests and engage students on different levels. The same was true for the chef who started a popsicle shop and the medical researcher who started her own business. These individuals showed our students that with hard work and further education, they can achieve their dreams.

A student considers new possible career choices after talking to a local entrepreneur.

A student considers new possible career choices after talking to a local entrepreneur.

We also created a career-themed mural that hangs in the hallway outside the PLUS Center that is a visual representation of the culture shift we try to create. We hung in the hallway a graphic representation of the Philly skyline, with several buildings for which students created individual windows out of small, colorful pieces of paper. These windows unfold to reveal each student’s dream career, what they can do to get there, and a drawing of themselves. Having such a visual representation of what success looks like to different students, as well as the work it takes them to get there, inspires other students to have dreams and work hard to achieve them. When we are able to reach almost every students in the school through visual collaborative projects, we are at our most effective. Even students that did not participate directly in creating the mural have gained inspiration by witnessing their peer’s ambition. Career Day not only changed several students ideas of what they could be when they grow up; it also changed the culture of the school. Since the fair, multiple students have asked us about our mural, or just stopped to look at it in the hall. We are slowly, little by little, widening our students’ worldviews and introducing them to careers at which they may excel but just have never had exposure to.

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Life of a Fellow: Sarah

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Life of a Fellow: Sarah

For those who work in education, March is frequently referred to as the doldrums of the school year.  It’s the month of gray, fighting to decide if it’s winter or spring. There are little to no days off, and it marks an odd in-between time in the school calendar. I felt it as a student and as a student teacher, and now I’m feeling it as a Fellow.

I can remember sitting at my desk in Mrs. Gothier’s first grade class at St. Rose of Lima. It was a drizzly day, and we were discussing how that year March came in like a lion and was going out like a lamb. We were nearing the end of the month, and I was so upset it was almost over. Sure, there weren’t many holidays, and the weather was kind of gross, and I had to do standardized testing. But at the end of every school day, I got to read silently for fifteen whole minutes as a part of the Read Across America initiative. As a seven-year-old who was very invested in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, this was a coveted piece of time. March may have been bleak, but that time carved into our school day for me to read made everything come up roses as far as I was concerned.

As a 24-year-old Fellow at Hill Freedman World Academy, 15 minutes during the day for me often feels like “too much.” Too much time away from students, too much time away from programming, too much being selfish. It always comes back to feeling selfish. Even when I am drained, and when I can feel the tears welling in my eyes. Taking a break never truly feels like an option.

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Sometimes education work can feel like trying to catch rain water in your hands. A few drops pool in your palms, but a lot of what you’re trying to save slips through the cracks. There are big goals and dreams that I have: for students, for my personal growth, and for the whole practice of education in the school district of Philadelphia. And there are days when those dreams and goals are tangible. I see acceptances, I’m given an incredible piece of writing to read, someone commends my personal philosophies. But there are also hard days. Days when my students frustrate me, days when I question my existence in this educational landscape, and days where it feels like others don’t see the value in my time, work, or presence. And that’s enough to break me down. It is in those moments that I am reminded of the importance of self-care and self-advocacy.

In any given education prep program, I can guarantee there will be an extensive unit on student advocacy. It is explained that, as an educator, you play the very important role of student advocate. You are able to see the needs of a student better than they may be able to express (for any number of reasons). For instance: You notice a student often becomes agitated when asked to work independently, ultimately disengaging and not accomplishing anything. As their teacher, it is up to you to remedy said situation. You advocate for that student by providing accommodations, such as an extended time frame for completion, allowing the student to take frequent brain breaks, or making modifications to the assignment so the student is more readily able to tackle material. This facilitates the student accomplishing their work and reaching their goals and ultimately fulfills your goal of getting the student to complete assignments and comprehend the material. Makes sense, right? But applying that same common sense logic to yourself as an adult in a professional setting doesn’t feel as “right” or “easy.”  But it is equally as important and vital to a person’s well-being and overall success in their career.

Something that I’m absolutely learning to do is offer myself the same grace I offer to others and especially my students. There have been many times this year that I have felt overwhelmed. These were not new feelings, but this was the first time I felt like I didn’t have an outlet. As a student teacher, there were days I was up at 4:15 to finish a lesson, and not in bed until two the following morning working on an assignment. I felt those feelings then, too. But I was still a student. I reaped the benefit of having a cooperating teacher being able to recognize where and when I was beginning to falter. Telling me to slow down and take a break. I don’t have that luxury now. I have learned that self-care is crucial. But I have also learned that while I advocate for students each and every day, I sometimes lose my own voice and forget to advocate for me. I haven’t quite figured out the equation. And I might not by the end of my time with 12 Plus. It’s a balancing act, and sometimes I fall. It’s a constant learning curve, but being able to recognize and vocalize my own needs is something I’m getting better at. When it comes down to it, my students keep me afloat. I know that I need to be at my best to serve and support them effectively. I can’t do that without minding myself.

We’ve made it through the doldrums. With spring approaching, college acceptances rolling in, and the graduation of Hill Freedman’s first ever senior class on the horizon it’s nice to take a deep breath with the realization that my work matters, and that I’m doing just fine.

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Life of a Fellow: Thu

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Life of a Fellow: Thu

Meet Thu! This Drexel grad, Philly native, and spicy food aficionado is a Fellow at KHSA. She majored in psychology, with a minor in marketing. Outside the PLUS Center, Thu loves to spend time with her family, friends, and dog named Alvin (after Alvin and the Chipmunks!).  

During Fellows training in August, the Site Directors were not joking around when they warned the Fellows that “Miss” or “Mister” would be the most commonly used word in the PLUS Centers. Despite their concrete warning, I pushed it to the back crevice of my brain and shockingly experienced it first-hand during one of KHSA’s busiest day at the PLUS Center. It was third period lunch, and students stampeded through the solid wooden doors, dropped their PLUS passes into the blue bucket, pushed and pulled for seats, and competed in a game of rock-paper-scissors of the utmost intensity for Chromebooks. No, not really to that extent, but that scene cinematically played in my mind after I noticed that they, somehow and at some time, had occupied all the blue seats and seized all the remaining laptops. By the way, I titled that scene in my mind “Mission Possible.”

And then it happened. “Miss” was called from every imaginable direction: north, south, east, west, northeast, southwest – I’m sure you get the point. My instincts told me to use my peripheral vision to spot any heads turning, any lips moving and rush to them before “Miss” could even slip off their tongues. “Miss, stop running! You’re going to trip again!” advised one student. Before I could stop in my tracks, the bell had already rung for the transition of periods.

After that lunch period of precisely 30 minutes, I sat down and wondered if I did the “right” thing, attending to all of their questions, requests, and concerns. If I attend to every single one of these, how will they gain the skill of working independently? Will they gain the skill of self-advocacy that we want to instill in them before they commence their post-secondary path? Will they learn to take risks, learn from experiences and consequences, develop positive self-esteem, and gradually increase control over their lives? These questions lingered in my mind for several months, and as I am writing this now, I genuinely believe that I did what I thought was “right.”

The “Mission Possible” scene at the PLUS Center has not played in my head for the past couple of weeks during third period lunch, and it is not because the students have grown highly repulsed by my overly cheerful greetings (I hope). It is because the students have learned the answers to many of their questions, requests, and concerns that were attended to in the very beginning. However, I admit that I have missed the suspense and recurring amounts of adrenaline that third period lunch awarded me.

In retrospect, I also recognized that self-advocacy was indeed practiced by the students throughout the days at the PLUS Center. Self-advocacy does not mean that the students have to do it all by themselves without the help of others. They recognized their needs and rights, voiced their concerns and opinions, and learned how to properly advocate for themselves and their peers. Every single thing the students asked and voiced was important, and I am immensely proud to say that I am rewarded on a daily basis with the opportunity to be the friend, advisor, and mentor available to answer their limitless queries.

After months of working with seniors on their college applications and FAFSAs, traffic in the PLUS Center has gradually slowed down. The seniors’ focus has redirected to completion of their Senior Projects and, for the senior students involved in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program, preparation for the annual Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) National Competition located in Lancaster, PA. With the transition of programming, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen have excitedly seeped through our doors throughout the day, and the “Mission Possible” scene replays – in a different way.

In the mornings and lunch periods, determined juniors hurry through our doors and gather around our front desk to sign-up for college campus visits. After informational college sessions, the juniors and sophomores visit the Center with countless questions about how to formulate future educational plans and to share their anxiety about preparing for their post-secondary path. One junior said to me, “Miss, I really thought I had no one in this school to help me.” The feelings of suspense and adrenaline instantly returned to me. I was eager to build a new relationship with N.C., a highly motivated junior who had many important thoughts and concerns that she wanted to express and find answers to.

I hope that I have not skewed the nuance of the word “Miss.” Now, when I hear “Miss” throughout my days, “Mission Possible” plays in my mind, and my coworkers and I actively and simultaneously play the lead role. I am highly anticipating what the rest of the school year will entail and the many meaningful relationships that will be built!

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