The Joy of Making a Difference

Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve just recently finished my position for the year at UC Merced’s 8th Summer Youth Academy (formerly known as Willie Brown Jr. Youth Academy). It’s been… quite a journey – the good, the bad, the great, the horrible. One thing for sure, though, is that I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s done.

This wasn’t my first year at Summer Youth Academy. I’ve mentored students, taught classes, given them exposure to life on a college campus, and so much more before when I did this last year. This will, however, be my final year as I’ll be graduating next semester and moving on in the world.

Over the span of 4 weeks, we mentored, taught, and connected with multiple cohorts of middle school and high school students from underserved, underrepresented, and marginalized communities in California’s Central Valley. I’ve met so many wonderful, amazing students who will always hold a special place in my heart. This summer was a summer to remember.

Of all the memories I’ll be taking away from this summer, none shine brighter than the student who was quiet and shy at first and eating alone away from the rest of the students, who I sat down with and talked to and connected with. I helped her open up and make a friend, and during our free play time, I invited her to play frisbee with a larger group and saw her smiling and laughing and having fun with them. She’d asked if she could wear my sun hat, first for a little while, then insisting on until her bus would come later that week, and I felt so touched by her growth and newfound confidence that I’d conceded my hat to her for the short while we had left. She gave me a final gift to remember her by: a humorous miniature 1:8 scale $100 bill.

Of all the memories I’ll be taking away from this summer, I’ll always remember the shy student who was low in energy and non-participatory for the first few days, but who eventually shined bright, made friends, and gained confidence. I remember that I’d notice her not participating in the activities, usually just sitting there and thinking about something else, not particularly in a disrespectful way but in a way that gave off the impression that she felt out-of-place. I made sure to let her know that if she’s feeling low energy, I respect that and she can take some time if needed. After giving her some space and most importantly, time, she eventually found a group that she could fit in with and following that, she could begin to show her hidden inner self with. She, too, gave me a final gift to remember her by: an origami frog with a bow tie.

I’ll remember the student who, at first, gave us all a hard time and said that they didn’t want to be there, and that they’d much rather be asleep than doing our summer program, but quickly turned around the next day, began showing signs of growth, apologized for the way they behaved, and began to really become engaged. I have so much respect for that student. That apology meant everything, because it showed growth, maturity, and strength. Over the week, they truly blossomed into one of the star figures of their cohort, and I’m so blessed to have been able to see them develop so deeply in character, empathy, understanding, and above all else: leadership.

When I walk into a classroom or dining hall and students are excited to see me, when they want to give me fist bumps as I pass by, when they want to talk and open up and connect, when they show curiosity, I wake up the next morning excited to go to work. When I see them being supportive of each other, when I hear them sharing awesome tidbits of knowledge they’ve learned, I smile.

I’ll remember the student who I consistently sat down with and talked to one-on-one during free time, who ended up being excited to help me and the rest of the staff do our duties and taught me so much and was so intelligent. I’ll remember the handful of students who all remembered me from last year because they attended my coding classes, who are on their ways to being such amazing people. I’ll remember the student who thanked me for praising their artwork last year, who told me that they continued art because of the positivity I planted.

There’s so much negativity in the world that we often forget that negativity and positivity are choices. We have old men making young people take up arms and fight each other, who point missiles and threaten the world with nuclear holocaust. We have the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful taking advantage of working-class people. We have hate. We have racism. We have sexism. We have homophobia. We have people who exploit the Earth, negligently paving the path to an uninhabitable future.

At the root of all these problems are people, and at the root of all these problems are their choices. Human beings have choices and make choices, and it’s these choices that affect the people around us. Those who exploit us and make us fight amongst ourselves are making choices that affect us, just as much as we make choices that affect each other. Individually, we may feel powerless, but it’s important to remember that humanity as a whole is the decision-maker. Our problems can be solved. They just aren’t being.

Just something to think about.

Happy trails.