By Katie Wornek, Outreach Officer and Financial Aid Expert – June 1, 2017
When I first moved from Nevada to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah, my brain was flooded with emotions. For the first few weeks of school, I lived off excitement, adrenaline, and a LOT of coffee. But I was 18 years old, alone for the first time in my life, and once I began to settle into my routine, I had time to reflect on how isolated I actually felt.
I knew that, in order to conquer that feeling, I needed to find something fun and rewarding to occupy the little free time I had. So, I found a part-time job as a tutor for East High School’s AVID program. AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a national college preparatory elective designed to help first-generation college students prepare for higher education and success in a global society.
When I started working at East High, I had no way of knowing that a part-time job would provide so much fulfillment. The teacher I worked for and the students I helped changed my life forever. I’d like to share with you a few of the lessons they have taught me over the years.
With a good education, the future can change in just one generation.
Many of the students in the AVID program come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and all of them are the first people in their family to seek a college education. Their families want them to succeed in school and find great careers, but they often don’t have the experience or money to make that happen. So, in our program, every senior files the FAFSA and they are required to submit multiple scholarship applications every quarter. Most continue to work part time through college because that sense of tenacity and grit is just a part of who they are. And, as a result, many of our former students have now graduated college debt-free. They are proof that a great education is not reserved for the wealthy. Help and resources are available to anyone if you know where to look and persist through the process.
Serve others and never lose your sense of gratitude.
College is not easy, and the longer you’re in school, the more difficult your classes can get. In my last year of college, I let myself begin to feel overwhelmed by those challenges. I stressed out about grades, money, and my post-graduation plans. Then one day, I came to work, and learned that two sisters in our program had lost their apartment and had been staying with their mom in a homeless shelter for the past few days while they tried to figure out their next step. They struggled with food insecurity and homelessness for the remainder of that school year, but they never missed class, and they continued to maintain excellent grades and positive attitudes. Today, the older sister has a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University and her younger sister just moved to Texas to start graduate school. Watching those girls succeed in the face of unbelievable adversity gave me the strength to work harder and stay positive every day.
Everything seems impossible… until somebody does it.
One young man in this year’s graduating cohort inspires me every time I think about him. He grew up in refugee camps in Nepal and described to me once that, when he was a child, he slept on a bed made of bamboo and when it rained (which was frequently) he would wake up cold and wet because his family’s roof was falling apart. This young man came to the United States as a refugee when he was 11 years old. He spoke no English and didn’t have the same level of education as his new classmates. Those obstacles might seem impossible to overcome, but he loved school, sought help, and chose to embrace the opportunities that his new life presented him. He will be attending Duke University in the fall on a 4-year, full ride scholarship where he plans to major in pre-medicine and global health. Next time you feel hopeless about a challenge in your life, I encourage you to remember his story.
So, as I prepare to attend East High’s graduation ceremony today for the eighth year in a row, I want to say to my AVID students and to all the members of the class of 2017 – dream big, work hard, and celebrate each other’s success every day!
Katie is an Outreach Officer with UHEAA and StepUpUtah. She holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Political Science from the University of Utah and previously worked as a tutor with the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college preparatory program. You can follow her for professional advice about preparing and paying for college on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat (@StepUpKatie).