School Relationships Helped Me Harness Power of Perseverance to Learn English, Use My Voice

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I came to the United States two years ago, absolutely terrified of speaking in English. I was depressed because I had left my family and friends behind. However, I was most shocked when I learned that I had to repeat all of high school, despite the fact that I had finished high school in the Dominican Republic. I was frustrated at my lack of English and my inability to convey my thoughts and ideas. I felt that everything I had worked for in the Dominican Republic wasn't worth it. I didn't feel good enough to achieve anything.

Even though I knew that by coming to the U.S. I would receive a better education, it was hard for me to start everything over again. On my first day, I literally did not say a single word; I just looked around at all the different people, terrified that they would notice me for being different.

However, I knew I could not let my fear hold me back. I started to come in after school every day so I could practice speaking English with my teachers, and during the summer I asked my teachers for books so I could read as much as possible and learn new words. There were many times when I felt depressed: when I couldn’t think of the right word, when I couldn’t even communicate basic ideas and when I thought of all the challenges that lay ahead for me. But I never gave up.

Education means everything in my life, so I fought to accomplish everything I wanted. I started to take advantage of all the opportunities available to me. Learning English has been the greatest obstacle in my life, but that hasn't stopped me from succeeding.

Last summer, I interned at Boston’s City Hall, where I worked as a tech apprentice with the Private Industry Council, assessing digital skills courses our city offers. This internship challenged me because I needed to be able to participate in meetings and phone calls in English. However, I was resilient. I constantly went above and beyond expectations to the point that they asked me to stay throughout the school year. This experience was an amazing opportunity for me to grow professionally but also to develop my English-speaking skills.

This year, I challenged myself and joined the debate team in Spanish but then moved to English to improve my speaking skills. I won the City Championship in the Spanish division. Debate is my way out of frustration. I love being able to stand up for what I believe in and defend my perspective.

I also forced myself to be brave by joining student government and using my voice to speak up for my classmates. I constantly organize activities in my school with other partners in order to make school a productive environment for students.

In addition, I became the leader of the School Site Council, where I use my voice to improve my school. I am part of the process of hiring teachers at school. I also have a voice on deciding where the school should invest its budget.

Finally, I had the opportunity in May to go to the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award ceremony, where President Barack Obama was presented with the 2017 Profile in Courage Award. I was one of four students selected to attend this event to represent Boston Public Schools. This was an amazing opportunity that I am grateful to have received. I got to meet President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, among many others.  

One of the things that helped me the most to accomplish these achievements was the relationship I built with my principal, teachers and counselor. Although I wanted to stop coming to school when I got to the country, the relationship I have with the school’s staff helped me because they showed me the importance of not giving up. They always encouraged me to challenge myself, and they taught me that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to achieve your goals, what matters is not giving up.

I am excited for what my future will bring. I know it will not be easy, but I will remember how I felt on my first day in the U.S., and I know that if I work hard, I can achieve anything.

Carolyn De Jesus Martinez, 18, moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic and is an 11th-grade student at Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINcA), a Boston public school that embraces new immigrant adolescent English language learners and their families. This summer, she pursued her interest in technology as a participant in the Girls Who Code program.  

For more stories like Carolyn’s, check out “I Came Here to Learn: The Achievements and Experiences of Massachusetts Students Whose First Language Is Not English,” a new report from the Center for Promise, the America’s Promise Alliance research institute. The research is a component of the GradNation State Activation Initiative, a three-year partnership between America's Promise and Pearson that aims to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing knowledge to accelerate adoption of proven strategies and developing successful models all states can replicate.