Teaching Students to Unleash Their Own Potential is Success

“I didn’t realize what I can do and that I can make a difference with my actions. Thank you for showing me that I can do something like this!” These are the words that have inspired me through these last couple of days. Armando, one of the leaders in the college readiness program I used to manage, sent me this text a day after his first blog was posted on the Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera website. In the blog, he shared his vision for creating a “solar movement” in Pico Rivera and the importance of exposing students in middle school to STEM.

I met Armando as a junior at El Rancho High School when he participated in the school’s first Northern California College Expedition. We decided to create an application process for participating in this event so that the students who were most interested would be attending. Upon reading Armando’s application, I was impressed. He was not a straight A student, but he was not an average student. It was clear from reading his personal statement why he should be provided this opportunity. His essay conveyed his confidence and determination.

While on the trip, Armando ended up being part of my group. As we toured Stanford, I couldn’t help but notice his facial expressions. I remember asking him how he felt about stepping on the campus he claimed to be his dream school and he gushed about his excitement. It was hearing him talk about his aspirations that made me curious about his future career plans. He shared that he loved math and engineering but had not had the opportunity to enroll into any of the engineering courses offered at school because of his tight schedule. Regardless of his lack of experience and exposure to engineering, I could tell he was passionate. Before making any promises, I recall asking: “Engineering is very competitive but if you have the drive and the time and commitment, I can help. Are you willing to do whatever it takes?” He didn’t even blink. His immediate response was a firm “Anything.” It was during that trip that I committed myself to being his advisor, his mentor and most importantly, his biggest supporter. I knew he had the ganas, but I wanted to make sure he was willing to put in the work as well.

Upon returning to school, I arranged our first counseling meeting and agreed to research summer programs that would allow Armando to gain some necessary hands-on experience in the field. After much research and with the support of my colleague, we found a STEM program at Los Angeles Trade Tech Center (LATTC). Even though the program would interfere with Senior Boot Camp, we agreed that he would apply, and we would make the accommodations necessary to keep him on schedule with college applications. Once Armando was accepted, we realized that he would face another challenge: transportation. Without hesitation, he once again met the challenge with open arms and decided to embark on a public transportation journey. Armando spent five weeks over the summer attending STEM focused courses that provided him with hands-on opportunities working with solar energy all while receiving college credit. Every day he took a one hour ride to LATTC and another one hour ride back to El Rancho to attend the last half of the Senior Boot Camp weekly three-hour workshops.

At the end of the summer, we sat down to discuss personal statements, and it was then that a new idea surfaced. In Armando’s experience with learning about solar energy and volunteering for a non-profit that installed solar panels, he had come to the realization that his hometown, Pico Rivera, was not as up to date with the solar movement. He shared his desire to create an awareness campaign of some sort and how much he wished he had had exposure to engineering design at an earlier age as he would have been more purposeful in participating and seeking opportunities to further develop himself.

After much brainstorming, we decided to propose an after-school club at one of the local middle schools to teach students about solar energy and expose them to hands-on solar focused experiments. We worked on a proposal and a budget and shared it with the district and a potential funder. A month later, Armando’s project was approved. I was worried that maybe this would be too much on his plate. After all, he was a senior, involved with ASB and serving as the varsity soccer captain, all while applying for college. However, Armando’s tenacity convinced me he could handle everything.

Three months later, I get to witness what we once thought of as a potential idea become a reality. Armando’s club has resulted in praise and exceeded many expectations. He shared his own disbelief as to how successful the project was turning out to be. The truth is I am proud of Armando, not so much for his commitment to create awareness about the harm that pollution causes and the importance of solar energy, but because he stepped up to the plate and became the person he would have liked having around when he was younger. He sees that our communities deserve the best and rather than waiting around for someone else to do something, he chose to be the one to spark the movement.

I share Armando’s story because in light of all the negativity, it is important to appreciate silver linings. Every day, our students are either discouraged or inspired by us. We are in control of the kind of impact we have on them. So think about all the students and young adults you encounter. Think about the power of your words. Remember that a simple “I believe in you” can go far. Above all, push students to believe in themselves; sometimes that’s what it takes for them to unleash their own potential.

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Alma Renteria

Alma Renteria

Alma-Delia Renteria is a proud product of Lynwood schools. After graduating UC Riverside, with a B.A. in English and a year earlier than anticipated, she decided to commit her “gap year” to City Year. After City Year Los Angeles, Alma went on to purse a teaching career with Teach For America Los Angeles. Upon joining TFA, Alma began her education career as a middle school teacher. It was while teaching that she realized the need to do her part to help serve the community she grew up in and decided to run for office, getting elected to the Lynwood School Board at only 23 years old. Alma completed her first Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University and a 2nd Masters in Educational Leadership along with her Admin Credential at Concordia University. She was appointed by the Speaker to the Instructional Quality Commission and re-elected to the Lynwood School Board in 2018. She currently serves as the Principal at a local elementary school in Pico Rivera, where she hopes to demonstrate that magic is possible when thee right people are given opportunities to lead.

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