By Katie Kinney, corps member, JPMorgan Chase Team at Hollenbeck Middle School 

City Year’s “Founding Stories” guide and speak to the idealistic culture that pervades the organization, motivating our continued efforts throughout a challenging year. One of these inspirational tales, titled The Starfish Story, speaks of a young girl who walks the shoreline of a beach saturated with stranded starfish. She begins to throw each one back into the ocean when a man approaches her to contest her efforts: “Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” She continues to hurl the starfish back into the sea and proclaims to the man, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

Throughout one’s City Year, corps members are undoubtedly faced with these same apprehensions about their ability to affect positive change, either self-imposed or from outside critics. Our students are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and we often ask ourselves, “What can I—one person—do to affect positive change in the lives of my students in less than one year?”

While impeccable tutoring and diligent role modeling play a crucial role in this change, at the heart of seeing powerful transformation in our students is the ability to build a deep and meaningful connection with them, so to motivate and inspire them to reach higher and further than they ever thought possible.

Raisa Ma of the JPMorgan Chase team at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights shares with us the story of her “Starfish Student,” Ryder. Raisa was placed in Ryder’s 7th grade English class. The entire semester, Ryder was failing. Despite this, Raisa noticed that Ryder was a bright and eager student, very much aware of his social environment. Ryder often communicated to Raisa how he aspires to be a politician and advocate for social justice; she saw in him the potential to become a successful student and future leader.

While determined to build a strong and meaningful student-mentor relationship with Ryder, Raisa struggled to find a way that would resonate. Raisa soon discovered that Ryder was an avid listener of a local rap artist whose lyrics focus on urban activism.  Drawing from Ryder’s interest in rap and social justice, Raisa introduced him to another well-known musician whose music is also colored with powerful lyrics of justice and equality.

Using music integration as a tool for personal empowerment, Raisa established a connection with Ryder based on their common desire for social justice and educational equality. Raisa took the time to dig a little deeper to discover what fuels Ryder’s enthusiasm for learning. Together, they discuss social issues that pervade impoverished societies and the ways in which education can pave the way for reaching Ryder’s dream of becoming a transformative leader.

Employing the powerful tones of socially minded musicians as inspiration to push Ryder to strive for success, Raisa has begun to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation in him. At the five-week grading period of the second semester, Ryder has taken tremendous strides to earn an A in English. Ryder was previously missing many assignments, but with Raisa’s encouragement, he became a regular attendee of the City Year after school program. There, he not only completed his current assignments, but made up the old ones to improve as well. Each day, the JPMorgan Chase team at Hollenbeck works diligently with him to improve his behavior and coursework in the afterschool space, reminding him of his goal to maintain his grade for the rest of the semester and encouraging him to use his educational foundation to create a successful future. He recently expressed to Raisa that he feels prepared to be more independent in his study skills and work habits.

Valuing persistence and innovative mentoring techniques, Raisa shows us all that breaking down the social-emotional barrier through a deep investment into the lives of our students may be the first step to changing “a life, a mind, or a circumstance today,” thereby releasing an academic potential that reaches further than the sea’s horizon.

Want to make a difference in students’ lives? Learn more about being a City Year corps member. Our next application deadline is February 15th!

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