The Life of a Fellow: Julia

A Year in Review

When I first saw the Fellows job posting on the Nittany Lion Career Network back in March of 2014, I thought to myself, “Did they create this job just for me?” I could not believe there was a position that enabled me to talk to students about going to college. A position where I could help inspire and motivate teenagers to achieve academic success and to dream bigger than they ever have before. It seemed too good to be true. I sent in the application and hoped for the best. At this point, I was only a few months away from graduation, still jobless, having applied to over 25 different jobs. Despite my feelings of rejection, there was something about the Fellows Initiative that had me feeling inspired and optimistic. These feelings grew stronger when a few days later, I got an email congratulating me on being selected for a first round interview. My year-long adventure with 12+ was about to begin.

From the moment I applied for the Fellowship, I knew that it would be an enormously impactful experience. Now, nearly a year later, I can say that working as a Fellow at Penn Treaty High School has shaped me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Being a Fellow has helped me grow as a mentor, counselor, leader, colleague and friend. Being a Fellow has shown me where my weaknesses lie and how I can best utilize my strengths. Being a Fellow has taught me unyielding patience and how to grow a thicker skin. Being a Fellow has taught me that poverty and environment truly affects a child’s education. Being a Fellow has shown me the importance and necessity of real, honest, reliable, healthy, inspiring relationships. Being a Fellow has shown me that sometimes, all a person needs is for someone else to show them they care. In the end, we are all human and all we need is to give and receive love. Being a Fellow has shown me the importance of a “good” leader and how to define what that means to me. Being a Fellow has shown me that an education is not only gained within the walls of a classroom. Most of all, being a Fellow has highlighted the injustices and inequalities that exist in our educational system and that, although organizations like 12+ are a good start, there is much more work to be done.

We know why kids drop out ... but one of the things that we never discuss ... is the value and importance of human connection. Relationships.
— Rita Pierson, Every Kid Needs a Champion

This year as a Fellow has been a whirlwind. I have experienced ultimate highs and ultimate lows, usually both in the same day. I knew working in a Philadelphia public school would be a challenge, but I never could have imagined the reality of my student’s lives. There would be days I would spend in the center talking to students about things affecting them such as; poverty, abuse, pregnancy, drugs, violence, death, and doing whatever it takes to survive. Those were just some of the issues my students face day in and day out and I could see how much their education was affected by them. There were many days I would go home and cry. I would cry because I felt hopeless; like nothing I could do would be able to help my students escape from their circumstances. Sending them off to college sounded good in theory, but some of them are unable to read and write at their appropriate grade level. How could I thrust them into an environment where they would be unprepared? I would cry because I was angry; my students did not deserve the cards they had been dealt. I would cry because I felt like I was not making a difference.

This period of hopelessness left me questioning all the work I was doing and would be doing for the rest of the year as a Fellow. Would my relationships with my students even make a difference in their lives? In the midst of my self-doubt, I stumbled upon a TED Talk by Rita Pierson titled Every Kid Needs a Champion. It was as if the universe was giving me the answers I was looking for -- a reminder that my work and the relationships I had been building are meaningful and impactful. One line during Rita’s talk that captivated and reminded me of my work was when she declared, “We know why kids drop out. We know why kids don’t learn, it’s either poverty, low attendance, negative peer influences, we know why... but one of the things that we never discuss or we rarely discuss is the value and importance of human connection. Relationships.” For me, this was all it took. It took one TED Talk to remind me that the relationships I was building, the advice I was giving, the shoulder I provided to cry on, the hugs I gave for comfort -- they were all making a difference.

Although my year with 12+ is coming to an end, I know that the relationships I have made and the lessons I have learned as a Fellow will remain with me forever. I could not have asked for a more meaningful, inspiring, and encouraging experience this year, and I hope to continue to carry 12+ and all of the unforgettable relationships and memories with me as I continue on my journey.

To my students: You never cease to amaze me with your smiles, authenticity and resilience. You can be anything and do anything you believe is possible. The first step is loving and believing yourself. Thank you for giving me an amazing year and memories I will never forget. I am so proud of you all, and I cannot wait to see how you will change the world.

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