My name is Hahn Chang, I am 18 years old, and I just had the privilege of serving a year of full-time service in Los Angeles as a City Year corps member being a tutor, mentor and role model to 7th and 8th grade students most at risk to drop out.
I came to serve because I wanted to make a difference in our country's drop-out crisis, particularly to help give the opportunities that I had growing up to students in high-need neighborhoods. Throughout the year I worked to bring students up to grade level in math and English, build confidence, and most importantly, cultivate opportunities.
With one student in particular, Jose, I know I helped cultivate those opportunities. I learned that the solution to helping our students is to encourage students to dream larger than they had imagined and build personal connections to build their confidence to succeed in every aspect of their lives.
It was the first day of school and I stood in front of the class in my City Year uniform (a bright yellow jacket and slightly oversized Timberland boots); I felt a bit out of place in a middle school classroom as the teacher introduced me.
"This is Mister Hahn, he will be helping us throughout the year."
After the introduction, I started awkwardly introducing myself to everyone.
As I approached the last student, he looked confused as I asked for his name. I repeated it again, "What's your name?"
He responded, "Jose."
I asked him how he was doing and, again, he stared at me blankly.
One of the students leaned into me and whispered, "Mister Hahn... Jose is from Mexico, he just came here, and he doesn't speak English."
A few weeks passed, and Jose was failing math and did not complete homework because he did not understand the material. The math teacher whom I was working with asked if I could translate. He asked, "Can you tutor Jose in Spanish?"
I hesitated. I barely got through AP Spanish; however, I nodded my head and said, "I will."
We started our first tutoring session and by using some rough Spanglish, we made it through an hour of math concepts. For two weeks this continued, and when I saw the results from his test, I realized that our lack of a common language was preventing Jose from learning.
That night, I went home and compiled a list of Spanish math vocabulary words. I grabbed the students' textbook and started to translate it and rehearse it so I knew what words to say and how to best explain it in Spanish.
Each night before I went to bed, I tried to think of how to articulate the new math lesson such as why uno sobre dos (½) multiplica por dos sobre tres (2/3) es igual a uno sobre tres (1/3).
With this new method, I found that Jose worked harder, and we started incorporating English more in our tutoring sessions. Because he understood the material, he almost never failed to turn his homework on time, and diligently studied for each of his tests. He was no longer failing, and as my Spanish and his English skills improved, so did our relationship. Instead of just talking at him about tres elevado tres (3^3), I was able to listen and understand what he was saying to me. He opened up to me about being an immigrant, his soccer ambitions, and how he loved FC Barcelona (just as I do) instead of Real Madrid. I opened up about going to Columbia University and my dreams about working in refugee camps.
Jose looked at me and asked to see pictures of this university that I was going to.
I made him a little binder and gave it to him the next day. As he thumbed through the booklet, he saw the pictures, smiled, and nodded. I knew he approved my choice with just four words in English.
"Cool school Mister Hahn."
Our time in tutoring went on, and as the year ended, the teacher called over to have a conference with Jose. When he came back to our tutoring session he couldn't help but smile. I asked him how he did, and without saying a word, he showed me the "B" he had gotten. With it he gave me a thank you note, and I got to the last line.
"Mister Hahn, yo quiero estudiar a Columbia tambien. Muchas gracias por su ayuda. Eres fantastico."
"Mister Hahn, I also want to study at Columbia. Thank you for all your help. You are fantastic."
Even as every 26 seconds, a student in our country drops out of school, City Year relentlessly pushes on. This year, 200 of my fellow corps members throughout Los Angeles and the 1,750 around the country have made an impact on thousands of students who are most at-risk to drop out. It is not about a magic potion to cure all of our students' problems in a night. Instead it is about showing up everyday to the schools, believing in our students and working tirelessly to help them exceed even the highest of expectations and succeed.
For me it goes back to giving students who were not born into privilege the same opportunities I have had. It is about allowing them to have the tools to compete with anyone in the world regardless of where they grew up. It is so that even if a student was born under the poverty line, they can go to America's top universities. Even if a student is a first generation immigrant, they can still become a CEO or a United States senator. It is so that students don't just look inward into their world -- they look out, and dream of the possibilities and work towards them.
And perhaps one day in his senior year of high school, my student, Jose, will take out his binder about Columbia University and apply. Perhaps one day, Jose will stand stressing about his Literature of Humanities midterm as he plays a pickup soccer game by Low Library on Columbia's campus.
And perhaps one day, not too far away, Jose will stand onstage as a Columbia University graduate.
For more stories from City Year Los Angeles corps members' year of service, visit the City Year LA blog.
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