Six years ago, I made the decision that I would not attend college.
I made the decision that the materials I was learning in the classroom were not relevant to the work I wanted to do. I made the decision that a higher education was not for me, and that even if I wanted to pursue a higher education, I was not smart or confident enough.
Today, I am a rising sophomore and honors student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, double majoring in sociology and communication. I love and value my education more than anything, and every day I feel privileged to be able to learn and grow.
When I was younger, I was a confident and happy student who enjoyed learning and loved being in the classroom. The middle of seventh grade year, however, changed everything for me.
I lost all of my hair to a condition called Alopecia. With each strand of hair, I lost a bit of confidence, until I was left with absolutely nothing. I immediately bought a wig and began a long journey with low self-esteem. The pain I was feeling started to make the lessons in the classroom less relevant, and little by little, my grades began to suffer.
For the first time, I was failing my classes. Day by day, I moved closer and closer to rock bottom.
Just when I wanted to give up, I received an opportunity that changed my life. I will never forget the Wednesday afternoon when I walked into my school’s anti-bullying club. I was there looking for support and guidance when I learned that the organization was looking for a new president.
On some level, I had always been passionate about service. This opportunity really stood out to me, though, because of my personal struggle with bullying. From a hurtful Facebook page made about me to receiving unkind notes in my locker, I struggled with bullying throughout middle school. I wanted to be the voice for others facing the same struggles as me.
Throughout my eighth grade year, I served as the president. For the first time, I had a voice. I learned skills such as: leadership, organization, and project management. The word problems in math and critical thinking skills in English suddenly started to seem more relevant. I worked hard to turn my grades around and become the strong, confident student I once was.
Serving my peers also improved my personal self-confidence. At the beginning of ninth grade, I made the decision to go without my wig.
That year, I also created a non-profit organization called The Love Your Natural Self Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering individuals. At the heart of my movement was International Natural Day, a day dedicated to self-love. I chose February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day, as the date, because I recognized that an individual must first practice self-love before they can fully love another person.
I hosted the first International Natural Day at my school in 2011. The event was such a success that other schools began to take notice. Before I knew it, students around the world were asking how to bring the initiative to their campus. By my junior year, it had spread to 28 countries. My goal has now become to see International Natural Day printed on every calendar around the globe.
For a while, I couldn’t find the words to describe my experience. People often asked me if my non-profit got in the way of my education. However, it was quite the opposite. I loved being able to take the lessons I learned in class and apply them to the management of my organization. The first time I heard the term “service-learning,” I knew that it perfectly described my journey.
There are several definitions of service-learning but they all, at the core, have the same mission. According to the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) service-learning can be defined as:
“…an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.”
It is this genuine and authentic approach that sets service-learning apart. Research compiled by the NYLC said that service-learning has the most impact “when [the] curriculum engages students in the construction of knowledge, ownership of the cognitive work, and authentic connection to the “real world” and community.” For me, researching a community need, creating my service project, and feeling like a leader for the first time were all contributing factors in my academic success.
According to research compiled by the University of Nebraska, Omaha, middle school and high school students who participated in an effective service-learning projects were “associated with higher scores on the state test of basic skills and higher grades.”
The research also shows that students who participated in an effective service-learning project were found “more likely to increase in their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy.”
Personally, service-learning changed my life at a time when I needed it most. For the first time, I imagined myself attending and graduating college. I regained my love of learning by applying the skills in the classroom to my service project.
It is important to realize that service-learning will look different for everyone. For me, service-learning meant starting a non-profit and using the skills I learned in the classroom to further my initiative. For others, service-learning could mean a field trip to a local non-profit, volunteering, or any other method of service that can tie into classroom instruction.
As a first generation college student, I realize the impact service-learning has on giving me the opportunities to lead and move forward. I have the privilege of being one of five FirstGEN Fellows this summer, a program giving me the resources to work at the Lawyers Committee and focus on change-making. Now more than ever, I am ready to go back to college and focus on my education so that someday I can use what I am learning in the classroom to have a career in social justice.
The impact service-learning had on my life made me realize the importance of making these initiatives accessible to all communities. Everyone deserves to feel inspired by their education.
The NYLC Resource Center compiled research highlighting how service-learning reduces the achievement gap. In this study, Brandeis University researchers found that “service-learning’s academic and civic impact was greater for lower-income, minority, and more at-risk youths.”
Additionally, the study stated that by spending just one hour per week participating in service, lower income communities saw a “significant reduction of the gap in achievement-related assets between higher and lower income students.”
The research also found that low-income students have less service opportunities. Now more than ever, it is important for me to use my voice to bring change in all communities.
At the end of each day, I take a moment to reflect on my journey and my experiences. I am grateful that I attended a school that offered me wonderful opportunities. I remember how privileged I am to receive a higher education, and how much I want to give back.
As I move into my sophomore year of college, I am continuing to manage my non-profit organization while also being a strong advocate for service-learning and education. I serve on various boards that work towards creating a better education system.
One of these organizations that has had a major impact on my life is the State Farm Youth Advisory Board. Since the start of the board in 2006, it has funded youth-led service-learning initiatives, giving grants totaling over 28.6 million dollars. Serving on the board and seeing firsthand how service-learning projects impact communities has been amazing.
The service learning initiatives are created and run by the ideas of youth. For example, Alfabetismo Primero is an initiative organized and managed by high school EL students. In this service-learning project, the high school students provide elementary EL students and their parents with resources that encourage learning and bridge the gap between them and their English Speaking Peers.
Projects like these show the heart behind service-learning. When students brainstorm initiatives that they are passionate about and use organization skills to carry out these initiatives, they are improving both their life and the lives of community members. The first step in creating service-learning initiatives in schools is realizing the power of youth voices. If youth are passionate about service and education, they will continue to move forward and someday, change the world.
I am grateful to have an education that helps me amplify my voice. I am grateful to be an intern working for the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law. Most of all, I am grateful to be working for an organization that embodies the message of service. Every day, I use the skills I have learned in college to work on initiatives that empower students and parents. For example, when working with the Parental Readiness and Empowerment Program (PREP), I have the opportunity to inspire parents to use their voice to make change. To me, there is nothing more powerful than inspiring someone to be an advocate for themselves.
Six years ago, I was ready to give up on myself and my education.
Today, I use my voice to ensure that students not only have equal access to education, but that they also have a genuine love of learning fueled by service and passion. I envision a world where service-learning initiatives fill classrooms, and students feel inspired to make a difference.