So Fall Quarter is Over…My Most Profound Experience

I’m the type of guy who doesn’t let anything interfere with my studies. Throughout high school I never refrained from taking a class despite warnings from my peers that the teacher was hard, nor have I taken a class purely because my friends were enrolled in it. Simply put, I reject the influence of others playing a role in what classes I elect to take. I pride myself in my ability in not second guessing the academic choices I make…that is until now. Thanks to my involvement in Dream Project and the relationships I’ve fostered with my mentees, I am filled with regret over my class selection for next quarter. My lament about my classes is a reflection of how strongly I feel about my relationship with my mentees, and how it devastates me to not be there with them to finish the college application process with them. The profound change in my perspective regarding the influence of others in my class selection showcases not only my developing views on what higher education entails but the value of Dream Project.

Before my time with Dream Project, I derived the value of classes through a meta physical like perspective, counting intellectual stimulation as the overriding factor. I wanted to be engaged with the material offered by the course as opposed to being engaged with others. In exchange for a challenging curriculum, I was willing to sacrifice any chances of creating and sustaining genuine relationships. I preferred reading out of the textbook on how to do things as opposed to turning to others. This is not to say that I detested the company of others, but rather emphasize how in an academic setting, I was accustomed to working by myself. I would race on ahead of everyone else and wait from them to catch up. With my entrance into the Dream Project program, I found myself in for a rude awakening. The diversity of the students that Dream Project works with is incredible. They come from so many different backgrounds that one forgets that though racial diversity is big, the diversity of learning styles is important also. Blessed by social economical conditions, I come from a place where a student takes private lessons to take the SAT test. Where the notion of hiring a college consultant is a reality. My hometown can only be described as suffering from an excess of resources. As a result, my environment provided me a knowledge of concepts and experiences I took fro granted that everyone else knew. I would rattle off the early action and early decision deadlines without knowing that my mentee had no idea what I was saying. I would joke about getting into UW with my relatively low SAT score, only to find kids slump in resignation as they quietly confessed to me that their SAT scores were several hundred points lower. In one case I recall how I mentioned about how colleges needed the social security number for the application only to learn that one of my mentees was an undocumented student.

The stories of my mentees and other students in the Dream Project forced me to re-evaluate my by-the-book philosophy. After all, what can a textbook tell me about the struggles and triumphs of a Somalia American girl who works two jobs to support her family while crafting her own identity as a first generation American? What’s the “standard” conduct when I have to tell my student that he might not even graduate this year without discouraging him of his dreams of going to college? Moments like those have spurred me to abandon my reluctance to work with others and motivate me to hound any person that may hold relevant information to my challenges. I can no longer rely exclusively on myself to provide answers and therefore acknowledge the need to integrate myself in the learning community. If changing my approach to learning meant an easier way for my mentees to understand the college application process, then it would be a price I would pay in a heartbeat.

Perhaps part of the reason why I am so willing to eschew years of habit for the sake of a few students is because I se myself in these students. Economic differences aside, I am awestruck by the fact that both my mentees and I are first generation Americans. We are the representatives of our families and our future success is the manifestation of family hopes and dreams. We will pioneer a new path derived from both the ideals of our cultures and aspirations of our American selves, establishing a model for our siblings to follow, but knowing that they too will create their own way. College is simply the first of many successes in what will hopefully become the good life our parents envisioned when they first step foot in this country. The fiery ambition I see in my mentees’’ eyes as they explain why they have to go to college reminds me of my own circumstances, compelling me to do everything I can for them. In addition to what I previously mentioned, my ability to emphasize with what my students are going through also brings me to question my attitude of isolation when it comes to learning. It has only been six months since I graduated from high school myself, so my memories of applying to college is not as fuzzy as other mentors. With my status as a freshman, my students looked upon me with even more credibility, simply because they knew my advice came from the perspective of someone who recently went through their own experiences. In turn, I’ve been able to forge and even closer bond with my mentees, transitioning from a purely academic relationship to one of great personal value of both sides. Our relationship was not that of an upperclassman ordering what must be done, but rather as a fellow 18 year old ready to disperse any suggestions in hopes of allowing his younger peers to join him in sharing the privilege of calling themselves college students.

Despite working alone on my UW application, I managed to succeed and attend UW, feeding my slightly egotistic attitude towards the merits of individual initiative. However, my work with the students at Kent Merdian High School refuted my claim of individual success. I watched how my students bounded ideas of one another to get a better perspective on their essays. I learned from my fellow mentors on how to work with an undocumented student. My interactions with my students revealed the empowering value that comes from encouragement and feedback. During my time as a mentor this quarter, I contradicted every single custom I had before, and I didn’t even feel any regret about it at all. Upon reflection, I realize that while the challenges presented when given autonomy on the college application process holds benefits in rewarding activism, it is not considered a weakness to allow others to work along in order to complete the task. Working together builds solidarity, a horizontal and personal relationship which makes the ending of fall quarter even harder for me.

How does a mentor go about ending a personal interaction with a mentee, especially when the mentee sees the mentor as a role model? Earlier this week I was wracked with anxiety over one looming question: How was I going to tell my mentees, the ones that told me that they couldn’t have done it without me, that I would not be returning to them next quarter? I was extremely concerned with how they would respond to the news. H (name withheld for privacy), who had already lost a mentor this year. N(name withheld) the Muslim American girl that I hit off the very first day we met. Or even K (name withheld), the Karen refugee who came to the US four years ago. The question of how to tell them soon had to account the question of when also. At the time of my need to inform them of my upcoming departure, the UW deadline was also coming up. However, I couldn’t tell them at the final high school visit could I?

In order to explain the difficulty of ending my work with my KM mentees I have to cite a monumental event that occurred a day before. The day before the extended KM visit, I attended the Dream Project lecture regarding helpful tips for the UW application. During the lecture I began texting my mentees all the helpful tips I was receiving at the moment, eager to make their application process as smooth as possible. In the middle of the text conversation with H, he told me this: “Thank you for everything I couldn’t have done it without you”. When you get something like that, an open admission and gratitude that you literally changed someone’s life for years to come…how, no wait, what can you even say? Despite sitting in the 700 person room in Kane Hall, the world seemed so small at that moment. Here was something so quiet yet so touching that an incredibly bittersweet feeling overcame me. Things were looking up for my students, but I wouldn’t be there to share every glory with them.

So the big day came on Tuesday, November 29th. My anxiety at telling my kids were temporarily displaced by my duty to be clam and encouraging of my students as they reassessed their essay and application one last time. However, as the clock began its final ticks I knew it was time. I took each student aside and privately told them that their academic journey would have to continue without me. H and K took it rather well, appreciative of my help and all, but I admit that with a sense of nausea that they probably handled it well simply because they’ve grown so used to mentors leaving them. On the other hand, N was absolutely crushed. She put both hands on her hijab and gave it a slight tug and looked downward. For the first time, her loquacious self was stunned into an empty silence that run loudly in my ears. Feelings of hurt and disappointment flashed in seconds before settling into a look of disconsolation. At that point who could blame her? Here N was, stunned by the fact that her mentor was leaving. The one who comforted her when she expressed her fear and nervousness about being rejected by UW (on the very fist day of the KM visit no less). The mentor who pulled an all-nighter with her revising her essays for the scholarships she learned about at Scholarship Kickoff Weekend. The guy who worked with her for three straight hours editing her personal statement to submit before Seattle University’s priority deadline ended. The person who she claims that all her friends call the best Dream Project mentor at KM (with the irony that he was going to reveal his departure within an hour of that statement). I repeatedly emphasized the fact that my reasons were not because of her or any of my mentees, but because of my own academic reasons. I told them that I was leaving because of academic reasons; a class that I had to take for my major was available only at that spot. Legitimate reason yes, but damn did it hurt to say it. Who knew that the pursuit of higher learning could have drawbacks? The biggest concern after telling my students was to assure them that their current and future successes did not correlate with me. After all, they did all the work leading up to that fateful day that we met. Even then my role was limited, seeing them only once a week, and mostly serving as a guide essentially. My job was to sustain their faith in their own qualifications and merits, and boy oh boy did I have a big task that day. Eventually I got N to feel better by claiming that after all we’ve been through, a strong relationship doesn’t wither quickly. Turns out the cliché “it’s not you, it’s me” is not limited to dating relationships, but damn this experience sure hurt as badly (if not more) than a break up.

Remember how I said earlier that I would never let others influence my academic choices? While I was riding back from KM, I contemplated altering my classes to fit KM into my schedule. Unfortunately when I investigated into the feasibility of that option, I discovered it meant that I would have had to drop all my classes. Despite not being able to fit KM, my sudden flexibility about academics revealed a significant point: The value of an education is not limited to what one can derived from a text. Intellectual stimulation can not be enjoyed without sharing with others. There is a possibility of a community of learners after all, evident by all the facebook statuses posted by Dream Project mentors offering help and encouraging students as the final hours of the UW app winds down. Therefore I thank the Dream Project and all its partners for teaching me the most important lesson of all: There is no higher education than serving others alongside fellow members of the community.

UPDATE!!!!!!!!!! Christmas came early today, and by god I got the best gift of all. Congrats to one of my mentees and all her hard work. Thanks to a few all nighters my mentee got the Act Six scholarship worth like 180k!!! The power of Dream Project baby!

Ummm yeah, the music. Let’s see here: This sums up my attitude perfectly.

Hall & Oates’ ‘You Make My Dreams’…there is almost no other song in I know of that inspires the sort of unexplicable enthusiasm  that makes you want to just give everything up and dance. With a guitar riff perfectly engineered to match snare-drum beats, the infectious happiness is imparted almost as soon as Oates arrives 10 seconds in. Unrushed, unsullied, exuberance – enought to make you want to twist and shout. 

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