Names of people in this essay have been deliberately removed to preserve anonymity. -MDM
She and I met on a rainy and cold Sunday afternoon. We were at a session of the tutoring and mentoring program I founded. She was marred physically—her disformed face confirmed that—but she was also beyond shy, beyond sad. The public-school system had repeatedly advanced her listed grade, yet at thirteen she could not read. She barely had the fortitude to raise her head out of her maroon hoody to tell me her name. I have spent a lot of time working with her, and I have realized that even if I can’t force her to study, I can give her a safe environment to make art, run around in the gym, and talk. She made me realize the stupefying, tremendous power of helping people learn.
After spending the Sundays of my junior year tutoring a family—three brothers just a few years younger than me and their bright younger sister, I realized something. Though we did work hard on their schoolwork, we spent just as much time discussing current events, politics, and life skills. We learned from each other about our different life backgrounds—but more so our commonalities. We became friends. The brothers inspired me to begin the program; we learned that similar peer tutoring and mentoring opportunities were not accessible in Cincinnati. For the last academic year, every Sunday underserved Cincinnati students from fifth grade through high school have come to my school. We started out with twelve kids and the program has grown to serve over twenty kids. They have become friends with their tutors—students their own age from my school. They study for an hour, then have a free snack, and finally play an athletic activity together with their tutors for a half hour. We provide free transportation both to and from their homes. Numerous studies indicate that peer mentorship has a unique ability to empower both mentees and mentors. So, rather than building the program only for academics, I developed it to build connections.
Thirty years ago, my parents emigrated to the United States to pursue their educations. As a result, my sister and I have grown up surrounded by academics. I never realized how fortunate I was—to have parents with jobs that allowed them to be home at night and help us with homework, for instance—until I met kids who were not as lucky. By working with the girl, the family, and so many more amazing kids, I have learned that rather than becoming stuck on material possessions, I must cherish what truly matters: the connections I have with other people. That is why I developed the program to bring people together through education.
One Sunday stands out, during which I had a tough conversation with a boy in the program, a junior in high school, about his grades and outlook on school. A month before, he had become academically eligible to play basketball for the first time in his high school career. I was very proud of him. However, over the past month, he had let his grades slip. I sat with him in the grey Commons area of my school. He told me how his teachers were prejudiced against him—he used the word “racist.” He explained how he felt futile and angry at his circumstances. He cried. I listened, trying to think of what I could say to him. Then I recalled what my own advisor had once told me: what people will remember is not your specific words, but the simple fact that you supported them during tough times. So, I sat with him, and consoled him as best I could. I told him how we cannot become ensnared by what we do not control—like people’s biases. What we do control though is our response to life’s challenges. It has been a few months since that talk, and his grades have improved. So too has his outlook.
As the program grows and kids grow older, I am sure that they themselves will become leaders in their schools and our Cincinnati community. In fact, I am helping one kid in our program, a freshman in high school, apply to my school for next year. Says he about the program: “hopefully I can attend this school next year, and who knows—maybe I can be one of the tutors helping kids like me.” I have no doubt that will one day be an inspiration for many kids.
As I embark upon my last semester of high school, I am often asked about a succession plan for the program. While undoubtedly it will be tough to give up active management of the program, I am fully confident in my team. While I still am around, however, I am working to grow the program and serve as many kids as possible and trying to better understand how I can improve the learning experience during our sessions for dyslexic and hyperactive kids. I hope to take what I have learned through the program, and from all of the wonderful people I have met pursuing this mission, with me to university and beyond.