One of the things I learned when I went to church throughout high school was that the best we can do with our activism is to plant seeds. We can't demand that people come around and become super devout and passionate about what we care about as soon as we tell them. We can't expect to change people's lives by spending a week with them.
I've kept that in mind over the years at Rice. When I site-led an Alternative Spring Break my sophomore year, I didn't want my group members to think we were going to save the students we meet and somehow dramatically raise their grades and lift them out of poverty and dangerous neighborhoods. We were there really to learn and to plant seeds. To plant seeds of these inklings of ideas that people out there care about low-income inner-city children who deserve a safe and good education from loving educators. To plant seeds that college and success are possible. To plant seeds that hard work can pay off, although not always as likely if your skin color is darker. But seeds, nonetheless.
Since my freshman year, I've been involved with a club at school where we mentor low-income disadvantaged high school seniors on college applications and college readiness. Freshman year was the hardest. I woke up at like 6 or 7 AM once a week (to be fair, I thought I wouldn't have to do that anymore after high school...) to go mentor high school seniors for about an hour. It was all manageable work. Basically anyone who had the privilege to somehow end up at Rice had enough human and social capital, despite our socioeconomic status and varying degrees of financial capital, to help these seniors apply to colleges. I wish I had someone to just sit with me through the college applications online and show me that if they're in college right now, I can do it too. Even though I went to a prestigious high school where most people had the mindset of going to college, I worked through the applications alone. After my first year of mentoring, I found that I liked it enough and found it meaningful enough to return a second year, and a third.
Occasionally, I kept in touch with my mentees. One girl had emailed me back around the time after her first semester of college. She was a vocal vivacious student who was ambitious and confident. She did debate, and the confidence and influence of her debate coach reflected in her college essay that I edited. Never for a second did I doubt that her essay was good or that she is good enough for college. It was a matter of furnishing the words enough so the ideas are still the same, but the way it was delivered is a little prettier, a little more coherent.
This semester, things got even more tough with trying to connect with local high schools to set up mentoring with them. I didn't end up getting to mentor at a school, even though I was in contact with a school. I got busy and let other priorities consume me. I know I find the work to be meaningful, but it felt really distant from me, after my studying abroad and the summer, it's been so so long since I mentored. That's why I was so surprised to get an email from one of my former mentees today. Nested happily and simply among all my other Rice list-serv emails of long subject lines and fancy headings, I saw a notification for a personalized email titled, "Howdy, Update."
It was a short and sweet email, like hearing from an old friend who you didn't know you missed but you're so glad they're in your life again, albeit for a fleeting moment. He's been thinking about how he's learned and grown so much since college. He worked his way up at the school he is now and he's gonna transfer to another better school soon to continue his studies. He has goals, he feels hopeful for his future, and he's already feeling amazing about his present. The fact that he thought of me and wanted to let me know how he was doing was beyond flattering. All I did was plant some seeds, and he meticulously watered the seeds and nurtured them so that with his own hard work, he's succeeding. It's really beautiful to think that I just sat by him, listened to him talk about what he wanted to tell colleges in his essay and helped him reflect his best self, believed in him and pushed him, and all that means so much to him still, two years later.
To anyone who doubts that we can make a difference, you're wrong. Making a difference is not about seeing tangible results in crunchy numbers all the time. Making a difference is treating people with the respect they deserve and believing in them to plant seeds with them. Do your best and keep going. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road a beautiful plant will spring up and surprise you with its strength and thirst for life...