Oberlin Alumna Gives Back to Community

Jessica De Paz, OC '14

To the Editors:

After completing my Africana Studies degree in 2014, I joined City Year, a national service organization that partners with public schools in high-poverty urban communities to help students graduate from high school ready for college and career success. My nine teammates and I directly supported academic achievement and student engagement in and out of the classroom in a predominantly Latino high school in Chicago.

I am writing this letter because many people have yet to know or understand what City Year really is. At its root core, it’s not about the amazing networking events the program has to offer, it’s about the students. It is about reminding others about the voices that are oftentimes forgotten underneath all the data, negative media portrayals and stereotypes. Oberlin taught me to be an activist and to fight for social justice. City Year was just one way I decided to go about starting my silent revolution — by bringing it home and serving mi comunidad.

I joined City Year because I wanted to be the role model my mother wished she could be for me. My mother immigrated to the U.S. at 16 and has worked in a factory since then. Her American dream was to see me and my three younger siblings obtain the best education possible. However, as a first generation student, earning something as simple as an 8th grade diploma proved to be difficult.

As an English as a Second Language student living in Chicago’s South Side, I could not advocate as easily for myself as other students because I did not know where to start. With my mother’s resilience and the amazing support of my teachers, I earned scholarships from the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund and the Posse Foundation, which sent me to Oberlin. Thanks to my professors and scholarship coaches, I am now wearing a bright red City Year jacket.

The more I understood my identity growing up, the more I recognized that I was only one of many Latino students who felt trapped by the statistical barriers that news reports and research placed before them. Unfortunately, not everyone can escape their zip code.

My students are part of those statistics and they are daily warriors. One student I worked with was frequently late to class and constantly put her head down because, as she admitted later in the year, she had low self-esteem. Sitting in the front of the classroom was torture because it would require her to speak out loud and she felt awkward about her voice. After many words of encouragement, she began arriving before the first bell and ended the year with a higher grade than she anticipated.

Another student called me “professor” for a month just as long as I called him “doctor.” I reminded him that every completed worksheet meant one step closer to his future medical career.

I had students who illustrated courage every day, hour and second. One admitted not being able to find a safe space outside of the classroom because of the circumstances of his neighborhood, yet he excelled at algebra and managed to make the strictest teacher laugh with his authenticity and play on Spanglish phrases. I was their cheerleader, the same way my mother and mentors were for me.

My teammates noticed I was creative, but my fear of failure kept me from showing my students that mistakes are learning opportunities. During our team meetings, my team would suggest that I take on additional leadership roles. They taught me the importance of confidence and deliberations. Not once had I seen myself as a leader until they complimented my potential. My partner teacher and coaches also demonstrated faith in my students and in me when they allowed space for constructive feedback and facilitation opportunities.

Now I am back for a second year because of my students and my strong belief in the power of young people. In the same way that my mother, mentors, students and teammates pushed me beyond my limits, I hope to guide future AmeriCorps members as they break down the barriers that younger generations are still trying to fight on their own.

Jessica De Paz

OC ’14