On the LEAH Project’s first day of summer youth training, an overcast Friday where each rain cloud that rolled over the city threatened to delay our scavenger hunt in the Boston Public Garden, I had my first experience meeting the 43 high school students who would be serving as LEAH Mentors over the summer.
LEAH, which stands for Leaders through Education, Action, and Hope, is a STEM education program for high school students from underrepresented communities in the Boston Public Schools district (BPS). With the goal of inspiring passion for STEM, providing academic support and college readiness assistance, and ultimately increasing diversity in STEM career fields, the students are trained to become LEAH Mentors, who teach science curriculums to elementary school children at after-school programs and summer camps. During that first day of training, I simultaneously felt youthful as I spoke to the students about their favorite TV shows, music, and video games, and aged as I listened to them talk about 2016’s viral Mannequin Challenge (which they had to do as one of the scavenger hunt tasks) as something they would have done as middle schoolers. On a more serious note, the conversations I had with the Mentors were also eye-opening, offering me a better understanding of the vastly different experiences that people have depending on their cultural background and socioeconomic status. I heard about hour-long public transportation commutes by both bus and subway to get to the LEAH offices that morning, and about daily schedules that depended on being able to leave the training on-time in order to get to the other jobs that they worked in the evenings. As a high school student, I had a car and well-paved suburban streets to drive on that didn’t become virtually unusable during rush-hour. I didn’t have the immediate need to work over the summers either; instead, I was able to commit my time to extracurricular interests and hobbies. Comparing these snippets of their daily lives to my personal experiences made me realize how little I understood the perspectives of others. I felt motivated to begin doing the work to become a more aware, empathetic, and humble person.
That work began almost immediately as I reflected on a thought that had passed through my mind a few days prior. During a meeting with my supervisor, I was learning about the various opportunities that LEAH offers to the Mentors. One of those opportunities is the LEAH Knox Scholars Program, which focuses on giving the high school students exposure and opportunities in the field of biomedical research. As a Biology major whose undergraduate experience has included a big emphasis on laboratory research, my eyes widened as my supervisor listed the names of prestigious institutions like MIT, Harvard, and The Broad Institute (the research center where the Human Genome Project was completed) as places where the Mentors have been placed for summer internships. I felt a great sense of awe and happiness knowing that the LEAH Project has been able to offer these amazing opportunities to their high school students. But at one point I also thought to myself, “Man, I would’ve loved to have opportunities like that when I was in high school.” While a seemingly benign thought at the moment, it appeared to me during my reflection how wrong I was to have that mindset. It placed too much value in the prestige of a name, causing me to show a lack of appreciation for the amazing opportunities that I had in high school, even if they lacked the fame of a bigger institution. A thought like that also bordered upon entering the realm of “I deserved that opportunity more than they do”, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While I may have worked hard in high school to get the best grades and to fill my time with meaningful and productive experiences, I was failing to see that these students are working just as hard, if not harder, to do well in school, fight adversity in their communities, and support their families. My mistake of undervaluing the opportunities I have had in the past and my inability to put myself in the shoes of others made me realize that I am still far from the humble, empathetic, and understanding person that I strive to be.
Critically reflecting on that moment increased my gratitude for being able to work at The LEAH Project this summer. I am extremely happy that programs like LEAH exist to help close the opportunity gap that contributes so greatly to educational inequity, and I have a newfound sense of confidence that the work of organizations like LEAH can improve lives and make a difference. I am excited for the opportunities that I have this summer to have conversations with new people from different backgrounds, which will help me be a more empathetic, understanding, and knowledgeable member of society. Finally, I realized that I needed to shed the overly-competitive type of thinking that has been very subtly ingrained in me through my upbringing in the academically-competitive suburbs of Southern California. As I move forward into the last two years of college, I need to do away with the subconscious feelings of envy that I have for the most prestigious opportunities. Instead, I must actively start to frame my work with humility and appreciation, see the value in what I already have, and devote my complete passion and energy into that. I feel hopeful that this will help me to achieve my personal and professional goals, without stepping on others along the way. With that, it’s time to get to work.