Seizing Opportunities: Why I Chose Education
My parents have always instilled the virtue of education in us. They would go out of their way to give us access to resources like comic books, library cards, microscopes, trips to museums, magazines, etc. “I don’t care what you read, as long as you’re reading,” they would say. With both parents having caring, religious backgrounds, my parents raised us with a propensity for service. The word selfish was a derogatory term in our household. Academics and service-to-others were two non-negotiables in my childhood that developed a passion for learning and eventually became the foundation of my career.
In 2006, my freshman year in high school, I met a team of Hamilton students who were interested in developing a program to harness the youth voice in Utica, N.Y. The privilege of being involved in the Underground Café opened my eyes to the fact that I was surrounded by new perspectives, new experiences, and a unique level of diversity. As a member of the Youth Advisory Board, we attended training for leadership, grant writing, community engagement, conflict resolution, and mediation. As teenagers, we met with our Mayor to advocate for what we wanted in our city. We organized street arts festivals, concerts, talent shows, and a space for community organizations to directly connect with youth.
It was the college prep program of the Underground Café that encouraged me to view Hamilton as a possibility for me to attend. Weekend trips to campus events in Beinecke, bi-weekly tutoring sessions in the science center, and meeting members of the faculty and staff helped me solidify my decision to apply via early decision. Receiving the acceptance letter changed my life, and at that moment I thought I had everything figured out.
Coming into Hamilton, I was convinced that I would be an economics major, make tons of money in the stock market, and live out the rest of my days somewhere in the Bermuda Islands. I learned adaptability quickly. After two tough test grades and a few conversations with Professor Wu and Ms. Breland (Director of Opportunity Programs), my grade for the course came down to the final exam. I passed the class, but the lessons I learned were worth much more than the credit for the course. I learned to take the process of my education personally. I had to do the work to assess my own goals and aspirations. Why am I here? What do I want out of my education? What drives my passion enough to dedicate my academic career to understanding it?
The beauty of an open curriculum is that it encourages exploration to develop my interests. I did not choose Hamilton College because of money or allusions of grandeur upon graduation. I chose Hamilton because of the connections I was able to make through my experiences with the Underground Café. I chose Hamilton because of the work we were able to do through our connection with the institution. Hamilton helped me help my community and that it is what created my excitement when I applied. I dedicated the remainder of my time on College Hill to developing myself as a resource for the communities around me.
I declared sociology as my major and focused my academics around understanding the relationships between poverty, higher education, and community engagement. I was able to intern and volunteer in community organizations with the purposes of service and research. That is when I began to learn a valuable lesson that I continue to live with. Education is a continuous cycle. In academics and in its professional application, you realize there is always something you don’t know, perspectives you haven’t encountered, and phenomena you still don’t understand. There is always room to grow.
Since Hamilton, I have worked with refugee and low-income entrepreneurs who sought resources to start or expand their business or micro-enterprise; helped first-generation and non-traditional students to determine and reach their academic and career plans; facilitated neighborhood association meetings and participated in the creation, administration, and analysis of the 2014 Community Needs Assessment for HUD and the City of Utica; worked to engage residents and stakeholders of Utica in a process to identify the local barriers to financial independence; and as a support and substitute teacher in the local charter school.
My current role as a counselor in the pportunity Programs Department of Utica College allows me the opportunity to work with students who have similar backgrounds as my own, to help them accomplish their goals and help mitigate any barriers that have the potential to derail their own academic and career plans. In this position, I am able to pass along lessons I’ve learned from previous experiences and learn from the perspectives of the students I work with.
I tell this story to relay a message to anyone interested in working in the field of education. Assess yourself, know yourself, and trust yourself enough to follow through with your passion. I realized in my first semester at Hamilton, that to be successful I would have to connect my academic goals with my social and career aspirations. I eliminated the “just” mentality as much as possible. It is not just an assignment, or just an internship, or just a job. It is your degree, your career, your life. Understanding and operating in this mode of thought has helped me gain the confidence I needed to overcome obstacles in my own life. Working in higher education allows me the opportunity to help others continue to do the same.