When I told my former student Ivette Mejia that I was launching this website it became the perfect opportunity for her to share her story. I met Ivette when she was a little girl while I was teaching 7th grade in Spanish Harlem. It was my first official teaching job although I had been in the field of tutoring and working with kids for many years prior to that.
Ivette is now a runner and a wonderful mother and she still plans on pursuing her other professional goals. She is also 25 years old!
Here she reflects on her 7th grade experience, the influence I thought I had as compared to the actual difference I made without even realizing it, the importance of reading and writing, and her immigrant experience as a Mexican-American.
I consider it an honor that this student has kept in touch with me through her journey (I introduced her to Smalls Jazz in NYC where a friend was performing then and she even attended my wedding brunch a few years later). Although I often felt I did not have all the answers she was looking for, I encouraged her to continue asking questions.
Ms. Syed was my 7th grade teacher; I vividly remember her 7th grade English class. I was a very shy and hesitant student, participation and classroom conversations did not come easily for me. I was afraid of mispronouncing words, something I have since mastered. I would always come to class prepared. Ms. Syed would call on me even if my hand was not raised without making me feel like I was a target. Ms. Syed was by far one of the most attentive and creative teachers. She saw in me what at the time I could not. As my confidence grew so did my love for reading and writing and despite my terrible grammar I steadily improved overtime. I often wonder what if I knew then what I know now? I love writing even more now and I am more confident in my speech and overall more alert today because of Ms. Syed pushed us in 7th grade.
Attending high school and college outside of “Spanish Harlem” really shaped my thinking. In essence I expanded my knowledge and proficiency in English because I surrounded myself with individuals who spoke “proper” English. I really appreciate Ms. Syed for inspiring me to read; today I believe that books are the answer. I also discovered my love for running thanks to her! She may not remember this but she once told me when I had approached her while crying that a girl was making fun of me because I looked “Indian”. I recall Ms. Syed saying to me, “Ivette, sweetheart, you should be proud to look different and be different.” She also told me that I should never be afraid to try new things and to keep my options open to everything. Ironically on that same day Mr. Brinceno, another teacher, asked me to join the track team because “I looked fast.” I just thought to myself: first, I look Indian and now I look fast! Whatever does this means about how I look? I guess I will now be a fast Indian. I guess I had so much fun running that I was the number one runner for the school and thanks to my competitiveness on the field I became very competitive in the classroom. I was student of the month for all the months during the school year. Mr. Mendez, my science teacher, joked that I should have just been made student of the year!
Running helped me transition into high school with more confidence and I left my comfort zone, Spanish Harlem, behind. I attended The Henry Street School for International Studies located on the Lower East Side of NYC. Although I was still in New York City the “Lower East Side” was a different atmosphere altogether. The population was mostly Asian. There I was sitting on my own because no one who attended middle school with me went to this high school. I was sitting there with many questions and doubts, doubts of having left my comfort zone yet I kept thinking of Ms. Syed’s advice, “Explore new things, my dear.” I wanted to travel because after reading so many books I saw me in them. I am glad I went to high school outside my comfort zone which in NYC is like traveling to a different place. Just like in the books I had read, I too was starting a new chapter where no one knew who I was or where I was coming from. After I met my homeroom teacher on the first day of school, I also met my best friend Jiny Funtilon who is from the Philippines. Thanks to her I realized it was not just Mexican people who came to America for a better life. We had gone through similar experiences and our countries are not geographically close! We even shared the same fear of mispronouncing a word in front of the class. High school was only challenging in the aspect that I was at a new place but I was much more confident about who I was and where I wanted to be for the next 4 years. During high school I also became a U.S Permanent Resident just in time for college applications. I did not really know what having a green card meant because I considered myself an American given that my parents raised me in the United States since I was one year old back in 1991. I do recall my college counselor being very excited for me, she even bought me a cupcake because now I would qualify for financial aid and it would be easier for me to really go out of state.
When it was time to apply for college I knew I had to go away given I had begun enjoying being out of my comfort zone. I wanted to make my own story. The college application process brought back middle school memories. I recall telling Mr. Briceno, my social studies teacher and track coach, “I want to go to a white school.” He joked and replied, “Oh! Like a white building with white walls!” But he knew I was referring to an affluent school. I wanted a good academic school, a clean school and a school that had extracurricular activities; however, society had pressured me into thinking that I could only find this affluent school if I had money to pay for it. I feel silly admitting this. Now, I have come to realize that I was never in an affluent public school in the eyes of society and I am really grateful for Ms. Syed’s help and motivation in this regard. Her books were the passports I needed to explore to become a well-rounded individual. I was accepted to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and John Jay College in New York City among others but these two were my top choices. I had my mother supporting the idea of me going away while my father and siblings were not supportive of the idea. The reasons they gave were, “Mom and dad can’t afford it!” or “If you don’t finish school it will be a waste of money; John Jay would practically be free for you” and many other things. I was ready to go and I had been preparing for this move since 7th grade!
I decided to attend Saint Vincent College (“SVC”). My college essay was on a pair of orange Nike running shoes that my parents bought me and the sacrifice they made to buy me those shoes. The head women’s cross-country coach contacted me to persuade me to run for the college. I did not run in high school because there was no running team and joining the college team would mean I would be competing against experienced runners. I was afraid but I loved to run but I had also learned to be open to new experiences. I had never run cross-country before! I ran in NYC but it was nothing serious. I ran the first race for SVC and I won! I finished in 21:06 for my first ever cross-country 5 km race. I told my coach, “Coach, I am going to improve a minute every year for the 5 km.” I was determined to train hard and excel in my studies. I developed a passion for competition and now there was absolutely no secret in me wanting to make a national team someday!
Moreover, I also experienced my first ever religion class my freshman year. I loved it because it was very interesting to me. I got to analyze scripts and write essays just like in literature class. My professor, Dr. Baker, approached me after we had written our first essay and said, “Ivette, you write so well but your grammar is not good. I would like to help you.” At first, I did not know what to think. I was mad because she was telling me I had terrible grammar but at the same time she wanted to help me. She suggested for me to take grammar and composition but also to attend her tutoring sessions. I did not want to take grammar and composition because it did not count as college credits and I had to drop my English class (Language and Rhetoric). I listened to her because I wanted to learn and this was a small bump on the road I had to get over because college is all about writing essays! College was an amazing experience and thanks to Dr. Baker I was able to write better essays in other classes. I knew money was an issue for my parents while I was at college so I worked very hard so that I could graduate in 3 years. And I did! I finished early and that way saved a lot of money. Though it seems easy to remain focused in college it is not. One has to set the priorities and make them clear to friends and even family. My priorities then were to graduate early, pass all my exams and classes, get A’s on my papers, make NCAA Division II National Championships and make sure my body and mind were well rested every day. Not only was I a good student, I was also one of Saint Vincent College’s most decorated athlete in school history. I broke numerous records and became the first athlete in the school to make an NCAA DIII National Championship.
I accomplished all this and I recall working very hard to do so but like I mentioned before I had been preparing for this since 7th grade. I feel very blessed for having met teachers, professors and coaches that care about me as a person. All it really takes is for a teacher to approach his or her students and ask what is the problem? I have encountered several teachers along the way that have shaped the person I am today. Once my teachers approached me and wanted to know more about me I felt like I was building a closer teacher-student relationship with them. It all started back in 7th grade when I learned to appreciate books and learning. Ms. Syed became a very important person in my life because she made me feel special and made me feel like my opinion mattered. In fact, 7th grade was the turning point in my academics. I was barely passing grades in elementary school. I went to summer school in the 4th and 6th grade and remember being afraid of middle school. Meeting Ms. Syed changed the way I looked at school and learning because I began to work twice as hard to get good grades. No, Ms. Syed did not make me smarter she only shared her tools (books) with me.
Today I am proud to say that I graduated from Saint Vincent College with a Bachelors of Science in Business Management and minor in marketing and entrepreneurship. I am currently employed full time at NYRR while I also continue to run competitively for Central Park Track Club- New balance. My dream is to make the qualifying time for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 m and eventually move up to being a competitive marathoner for the United States or Mexico as I have the privilege to have dual nationality. I am also a proud mother of Dexter Armando Ramirez-Mejia whom I read to since the moment I found out I was pregnant back in December 2011 after USATF Cross-Country Championships. I am determined to guide Dexter with literature and teach him the importance of reading because it was there where I built the courage to make my dreams a reality. I learned to always believe.
Becoming a U.S Citizen after college was a very emotional moment for me. I cried during the naturalization ceremony. My U.S citizenship represents all of the struggles my parents went through to provide me with more opportunities for education and employment. During the ceremony the officials played a video of immigrants coming off of a boat and I imagined my father coming to this country without knowing where he would live or work and here I am now writing my own story because of his efforts.
I continue to make time for reading despite my busy schedule. Just like I train my body everyday to run faster I also make sure my brain gets a workout by reading and analyzing the text. Within the many ambitious goals and dreams that I have set for myself I want to return to school and earn my MBA and PHD.