Four years ago, I started to help organize events for a little literary arts nonprofit called Youth Speaks Hawai’i, gradually accumulating responsibility until I was managing most of the programming: coordinating poetry writing workshops, spoken word open mics, poetry slams, interscholastic competitions and school outreach. With a shoestring budget and a few dedicated volunteers, the organization was making an impact in hundreds of students' lives every year. I watched shy youth transform into confident advocates for themselves and their communities. Through spoken word, I was able to travel the country, performing and networking with hundreds of people who continue inspiring me to this day. In 2011 and 2012, I worked myself ragged because the work was invigorating me in a way that school and employment had previously been unable to. At the same time, I was working a few part-time jobs and earning my undergraduate degree at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. The combination was exhausting, but I felt more alive than ever before.
Twice, I reached out to my alma mater, Roosevelt High School, to see if they wanted to become involved with our programming. I was willing to offer my services to help start a spoken word club at their school for free as a way of giving back to the school that helped shape me. My emails to the English and Social Studies departments and administration went largely unanswered, so I visited the school to talk to my old teachers. They thought my idea was great, but they didn’t have the time or space to house the club and the administration was largely unresponsive.
Looking back, this was a transformative moment. After I graduated high school and realized that nothing was going to be given to me, my obsession with personal growth and progress enabled many of the opportunities I’ve had while also driving me away from old friends. I was motivated and learning at a faster pace than ever before, but being rejected by my alma mater accelerated this process even further.
I made an incredibly egotistical promise to myself and to the students at Roosevelt that someday sooner rather than later, the administration would be reaching out to me to ask for programming from the org because they’d recognize how important and life-changing it could be for the students. At that point, I didn’t have a mechanism for enacting this change in their attitude, but I stewed.
Struggling to run programming and fundraise for the organization and balance the demands of various extracurricular activities, work and school, I had burned out by early 2013. I began transferring responsibility for programming to a youth board formed in September 2012. The transition was not as effective as I would have liked. In taking over the programming myself, I had been quickly forced to learn everything, from sound and lighting to event promotion, but I hadn’t been taught how to teach these skills to other people. As I struggled through burnout to transfer the knowledge, I grew frustrated with the youth and was abusive at times during our meetings when they failed to live up to my expectations. I look back at this period with tremendous regret, but I learned from the experience.
In February 2013, I found out about the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On a whim, and partially inspired by my girlfriend attending college in New York, I had researched a list of graduate programs in education (primarily east coast), and I explored the options available in earnest. The Harvard program immediately stuck out because of its length and flexibility, and I crossed programs from other top schools like Columbia and Stanford off the list over a period of a few weeks. By this point, I realized that in order for Youth Speaks Hawai’i and other nonprofit arts and community organizations like it to succeed, they needed so much more than functional youth boards and money and dedicated staff. They needed changes in policy and methods for sustainable growth and a host of other knowledge and conditions for success that I could not produce. The Harvard program would allow me to become better at what I already did while also gaining knowledge to branch into policy and other areas of education reform.
Having narrowed my list to a single program, I began the application process in March 2013, studied for my GRE and took it in June. In July, I reached out for letters of recommendation. I began writing my statement of purpose and filling out my application in August and submitted it in December. In March, a year after I began the application process, I was accepted.
Now, I’m here. Next week, I begin orientation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The week after, I begin study in the Arts in Education Program. This program will allow me to study nonprofit organizing while also broadening my horizons to include policy and leadership study. It’s an incredible program in its flexibility:
- S-300 The Arts in Education: Learning in and Through the Arts
- A-019 Education Sector Nonprofits
- A-021 Leadership in Social-Change Organizations
- A-024 Politics and Education Policy in the United States
Looking at my potential schedule for the first semester, it’s basically everything I didn’t know I needed when I made that frustrated, egotistical promise.
As I write this, 5,078 miles from home, I’m reflecting on all the reasons I’m here. Yes, I’m here because in me there was a frustrated young man wanting to be noticed by his alma mater and pledging to be so good they couldn't ignore him, but I’m also here because Darron and Lyz and Travis and Jason and Melvin believed in me. I’m here because Lyz and Rob and Bobby took the time to write letters of recommendation. I’m here because Michelle helped me edit my statement of purpose and, in the process, helped me better understand my internal motivation for pursuing graduate school. I'm here because Brenda sent me study materials for the GRE. I’m here because Jocelyn and Harrison and Will all challenge me daily to be a better mentor, artist and friend. I’m here because my girlfriend Hannah supports me and celebrates my success while always encouraging me to be better to and for those around me. I’m here because Tui told me that I have to be one of the good guys. I’m here because my Uncle Claude taught me to love learning and study hard. I'm here because my family believed in me enough to invest money in my continuing education. I’m here because my mama has invested me with so much time and money and effort and everything, that I owe her my best effort in everything, too.
Ultimately, I’m here because I don’t need Roosevelt to reach out to me anymore. Because I can only focus on improving myself and my community, and increasing my capacity to serve the youth I work with. Because success is more than recognition. Sometimes, success is a quiet classroom or community arts center filled with pencils scribbling. Sometimes, success is a challenging conversation in a friend’s living room that results in self-questioning and insecurity and growth. I’m here now because I’ve realized a lot in the last four years about what it means to be an effective educator and leader. Because I’ve got a lot more to learn. Because I am humble and motivated and eager. Because I’m ready.