This morning, we ended the tour with a quick visit to the White House, where students explored the historical building. Then, we said our goodbyes and parted ways, traveling home to as close as Baltimore and as far as Berkeley, CA. It was evident from the goodbyes that students formed real friendships on this special trip. It’s difficult to summarize how much this tour has meant to each of us. For a small glimpse, we’ve included Tour Counselor Zoe Russell’s moving speech from last night’s Squash on Fire reception.
Hello everyone, and good evening! It has been an honor to act as a tour counselor this past week, and it is an honor to speak for you all this evening.
Without a doubt, I would have loved to participate in the Citizenship Tour as a student. With a passion for creating change and an interest in law, it would have been an incomparable experience to have met even one of the amazing people that the students have had the chance to meet in the last few days, including U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer, top-tier NBC journalist Lester Holt, power couple Tanya and Alejandro Mayorkas, who founded the Fair Housing Institute of LA and was the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, respectively, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Justin Muzinich. Alas, the first Citizenship Tour did not occur until 2014, a full year after I had already graduated from SquashBusters in Boston, and matriculated to Bucknell University as a Posse Scholar. And so, with an envious heart, I lived vicariously through the blog posts and personal stories of friends about this amazing program. I was not just jealous of the fact that they were meeting superstars like John Lewis or current presidential candidate Cory Booker, I lamented the opportunity to engage with those who had pursued and were excelling in the exact fields I saw my future in. Many of you are aware of the various gaps in our society: the opportunity gap, the education gap, etc. And while those gaps are far smaller than in the past, they are still very present, and pose a threat to the success of many communities.
A little over a year ago, I took a weekend off from my job as a paralegal in Atlanta and visited my family at home in Boston. Having moved to Atlanta right after graduating college, with no family and friends, I was lonely, stressed at work, and in the middle of studying for my LSATs, the most difficult exam I had encountered thus far in my life. I deeply needed some perspective, so my mother told me a story I’d never heard before. I had known that she was the first in her family to attend college, not only completing a degree at the prestigious Wellesley College, but also completing a Master’s degree afterward. The new detail she shared with me that night, was that she’d also gotten into Trinity College on a full scholarship, but my great-grandmother, a Caribbean-born immigrant who raised my mom and her siblings, told her she shouldn’t go. “Your great-grandmother didn’t really understand how the education system worked,” my mother said, “she didn’t realize how much of a difference the scholarship made.” Had no idea that it covered important things like housing, meal plans, and travel. Had no idea that, in comparison to Wellesley, which didn’t give as much money, Trinity was the obvious choice. Neither did my mother. All they had to go off of, was that they knew how to get to Wellesley, and didn’t know how to get to Trinity, so that’s where my mother went. My mother, who has led a career dedicated to public service, is still paying off loans today because information as simple as how to differentiate loans from scholarships, and a bus route, were not available to her family at the time. One of her greatest accomplishments, she told me, was ensuring I had access to all the information I needed for success. That included finding and enrolling me in incredible programs such as SquashBusters, where I received SAT support, was taken on college tours, and given a financial aid coach. The night she shared this with me, she also made a point to tell me how extremely proud she was of all I had achieved thus far, and how happy it made her to see me living my long-time dream of applying to law school. But I knew in that moment that it was because of all she went through, and the mistakes she made, that I am able to navigate the education system so well.
Even though my mother’s college decisions happened several decades ago, many black, brown, immigrant, and low-income students across the United States are in the same position today, as they apply to college and pursue professional careers. Who do they talk to that can help them make informed life decisions when their families have never encountered them? The Citizenship Tour, with intentional opportunities to engage and network with powerful individuals at the forefront of their fields, is a program helping to address this issue, and close this opportunity gap. During one of our nightly meetings this week, students were asked how they would describe themselves and the rest of their peers on the Citizenship Tour. “Curious, intellectual, and full of potential, whether they realize it or not,” said Jocelyn, a recent graduate from Squash Haven in Connecticut who will be attending Dickinson College in the fall. “[We’re all] leaders in [our] own way.” In agreement, Jocelyn’s Squash Haven peer, Aboubacar, added: “We want to change the world, but we don’t know how.” When asked what she was passionate about, Naima, a rising senior from SquashDrive in Oakland, California responded that she wanted to help and encourage other first generation students like herself on their path to college. From the moment you meet them, it is clear not only that our students are extraordinary, but also that they are extremely self-aware. They are well-versed in matters of equity, justice, service, and civic engagement. Their passion, leadership, and drive is unmistakable. They know they are reaching for greatness, and are searching for support on their journey, but it is a support many of their families and communities cannot provide. They know that if they can find a way to reach their goals, they will be resources, mentors, and models for the following generation.
The Citizenship Tour was created in aid of this pursuit, and even now, hours before our 6th tour ends, we can see the difference. When asked to describe this week has meant for them, Keon, a SquashWise senior from Baltimore responded: “Eye-opening. Moving forward, […] I aspire to create non-profit programs that will make a positive impact, whether it’s creating a homeless shelter or establishing a school dedicated to helping marginalized communities of color.” Lexa, a student from Access Youth Academy based in San Diego, stated: “Since now I know the importance of being a citizen, and I am very passionate about immigration reform, one of my plans is to help [show] undocumented immigrants how much they impact our nation and how their citizenship would make the U.S. a better place.” How incredible are those responses?! Can we get a hand for that? If you aren’t inspired by the young people in this room, I don’t know what to tell you. We are watching generational education and information gaps close right in front of us. This is the powerful, important work that the Squash and Education Alliance, with all of its partner programs, is doing for communities across the world. From Colombia to South Africa, Chicago to Charleston, we are working hard to make the future our students rightfully deserve accessible. They experienced dramatic change in one week; with the support of SEA behind them, imagine what these young people will bring to the table in five, ten, and thirty years. They’re going to change the world. And they’re starting right now.
I would like to thank all of you, personally, for your support. Whatever your role– board member, donor, volunteer, family, or friend, you are essential to this process of opening doors for the world’s future leaders. As for me, I think it’s safe to say I made the most of a bad situation. I may have missed out on the Citizenship Tour in high school, but I’m getting paid to be here now! I’d say it worked out for the best. Even as I look forward to attending Harvard Law School in the fall, this week is a reminder of how I came to be here: someone acknowledged my potential, identified my opportunity gap, and worked to bridge the divide between potential and reality.