By Vanessa Gonzalez
Growing up, I was a shy, self-conscious, but studious girl. I was afraid that I might become involved in gangs—a common occurrence in my neighborhood. My parents tried their best to help with schoolwork, but their limited education and language barriers were challenging for all of us. The lack of books and computers also made it difficult for me to learn.
I struggled with my self-confidence and circumstances, until one person changed my whole perspective. My amazing high school science teacher, Ms. Tam, told me that she genuinely believed in me and that I was capable of accomplishing anything I put my mind to. From that moment on, I was excited about the future and ready to show the world all that I could offer.
I am proud to say that I am the first in my family to graduate from college, earning a degree in Sociology from California State University, Northridge. I knew that after college, I wanted to help combat the dropout crisis that our country is facing, and to work with students who are at risk of dropping out, just like I once was.
One in four young people between the ages of 16-24 are not in school or have no more than a high school degree — 400,000 kids, according to Brookings Institute data released at Microsoft’s YouthSpark Conference in January 2014. Of the 400,000, almost half were unemployed at time of survey, and every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school. This is especially unacceptable to me as we can identify off-track students as early as the third grade by looking at their attendance, behavior, and coursework.
Many of these students do not have people in their lives like City Year Corps Members. I serve as a tutor, mentor and role model to the students at Compton Avenue Elementary in Watts because I understand, firsthand, the power of mentorship.
In six months of service, I have seen great progress in my students, many of whom need more than just a great lesson every day to succeed. Last year, 82 percent of the lowest performing students we tutored in elementary schools improved their math assessment scores by at least one performance level, and I am proud to be a part of this success.
An AmeriCorps program, City Year is an educational non-profit organization that unites a diverse group of young people from the ages of 17-24 for a year of full-time service in elementary, middle, and high schools. I am one of 2,700 corps members serving students in high-need schools in 25 cities.
I encourage everyone to consider acting as a mentor, with City Year or another organization, and to continue to provide resources to the schools and students in need.
Vanessa Gonzalez is a graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and California State University, Northridge. While in college, Gonzalez worked with the Academic Advantage “Learning with Laptops” program tutoring 4th and 5th grade students. Her work there inspired her to continue with City Year. Gonzalez first presented this piece as a speech at the Microsoft YouthSpark Conference in January 2014 at the University of Southern California.