Life of a Fellow: Ernest's Final Reflections

This is the last post in our 2015-2016 Fellows' Final Reflections series, in which each Fellow looks back on their year in the PLUS Center and shares what they will take with them as they embark on their next ventures. Today we hear from former Fellow Ernest, who is returning to Hill Freedman World Academy as Site Director this year!


“You want me to what? Oh no no no, anything but that. That’s not really my thing….” These thoughts leapt to mind immediately but I quickly shut my mouth before they could escape. It was my senior year of college and as the President of the Penn 12+ Volunteer Chapter, I had to set a good example. Namely, for the freshman volunteer I had accompanied to help out at Penn Treaty. College Week was coming soon and they needed help making banners to hang in the hallways so they could promote the event. I had never thought of myself as an artistic person; I think the last piece of art I took pride in was a bunny made from a soda bottle I put together for Mother’s Day when I was ten. However, as the Penn Treaty site director held out the scissors and markers with a smile, all I could do was take them and smile back as convincingly as I could. “Come on Aaron, this will be fun!” I heard myself say. “Maybe we could make up a hashtag…”

Fast forward a year, and I’m a brand new fellow at Hill Freedman World Academy. As our third and newest school partner, the school was full of strangers and it was my job as part of the 12+ team to get to know them. I’m naturally a pretty shy person (especially around those who are older than me) so when first met the other staff members at the teacher’s breakfast we were hosting, the alarms started going off again. “Whoa, there are a lot of people here. What do I say? Can they tell I’m freaking out? Say something smart!” I’m pretty sure I still didn’t say anything smart but I must have done alright because those conversations were the beginning of some incredibly meaningful partnerships and friendships.

12+’s core message that we seek to impart to students is also our motto: “Believe, Act, Inspire.” The more I think about it, the more I realize how truly important that first part, “Believe,” is. Before I started at 12+, there were a lot of beliefs I held about myself and I defined my limits based on those beliefs. “You’re not artistic or creative. You’re awkward and not good at meeting new people. You’re a poor writer. You can’t dance to save your life.” So when it came to acting against these beliefs, my first instinct was always to pull away or let someone else take up the responsibility. However, in the past year I have done things I never imagined I could do. I’ve built and decorated a PLUS center, built workshops from scratch, coordinated dozens of volunteers during Career Day, written poetry, and somewhere along the way even picked up a few dance moves! Every time, I’m surprised at how well things turn out compared to my expectations.

In the process of doing these things, I’ve come to realize that many of the beliefs I held about myself simply weren’t true. I do have a creative side, it was just buried deep inside and a bit rusty from lack of use. Being awkward isn’t necessarily a weakness; I may still be awkward, but by embracing it I can let my students know it’s OK if they feel awkward at times too. Writing may be challenging at times but can be really enjoyable and even if I am still pretty bad at dancing, it’s worth it if my moves can bring a smile to the students faces!   

Realizations like these are precisely why I keep coming back to 12+ - first as a volunteer, then as a fellow, now as a site director. It’s not because I’m some expert at helping students get into college but because no matter what I do as a part of 12+, I’m still learning. The things we tell our students, like “There’s no such thing as smart or dumb” and “Your brain is always changing and is capable of learning new things” aren’t just bland encouragement or clichés - they’re invaluable life lessons that I’m still internalizing even as I teach them to the students.

This upcoming year is full of uncertainties but one thing is certain: I’m going to be put in situations where I’ll be asked to do something I believe I’m not great at. But if the last few years have proved anything, I know that it’s not about things I can or can’t do. It’s about things I’m comfortable with, and things I haven’t given an honest shot at yet but can do with a little belief and hard work. Now that I realize this, I can’t wait to get back into school and work on the rest of the motto: acting on these beliefs, and hopefully inspiring the kids to do so too!

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