My biggest fear is to live an insignificant life. Growing up, I redirected this fear into an admiration for people who achieved groundbreaking discoveries, remarkable victories, and miraculous cures. More than anything, I wanted to join the ranks of history-makers.
So in my junior year, I joined the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Student Advisory Council (SAC) to make a tangible difference in my local neighborhoods. As one of 20 high schoolers on SAC, I research, draft, and present policy recommendations to CPS CEO Dr.
Janice Jackson. I tackle important issues such as the public schools’ budgeting crisis and even helped design 13 network-specific allocation formulae for 600 public schools to address their specific financial needs. Yet, I wondered how far our recommendations would be implemented. My fear of insignificance resurfaced, and it stifled empathy for the people whom I was trying to help.
But this summer, I found a cause I wanted to fight for, a cause that was deeply personal, a cause that had a face.
I started to advocate for students mental and emotional health. In June, my oldest and closest childhood friend suddenly passed. George and I were born on the same day, the same year, and at the same hospital. I found out that George passed from a combination of antidepressants and alcohol, and learned only after his death that he had suffered from years of bullying, anxiety, and depression. I was unaware of how much he struggled. It saddened me that he couldn’t tell me about his pain.
My feelings of insignificance struck deeper, and I felt I let him down as a friend. In my search to make a difference, I missed problems that were right in front of me, ones that affected those closest to me.
Soon after George’s funeral, SAC began its summer launch and I proposed a project that has given me a renewed purpose and a way to process my grief. I suggested not only adding more social and emotional learning (SEL) services within CPS schools to support students like George, but spearheaded a curriculum that teaches students to cope with stress and develop emotional management skills. My team partnered with organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, Lurie Children’s Hospital, and Thrive Chicago. I arranged meetings with these organizations, interviewed staff, gathered data, learned from their work, and brainstormed potential policy recommendations. Most importantly, I met with the CPS Department of Competency-Based Education (CBE), and together we designed a new pilot program that tracks student achievement through academic and adaptive competencies.
The new CBE curriculum measures student learning based not on academic achievement alone, but also on emotional intelligence. It teaches teamwork, decision-making, introspection, and conflict management to empower students with skills so they can maneuver through school life in emotionally healthy ways. Because of my work with SAC this summer and during this senior year, over the next two years there will be 11 CPS schools integrating the CBE program into their curriculum, including my school Northside College Prep. I was beyond excited.
Now when I work on the CBE curriculum, I don’t recall the countless mental health statistics I gathered, but I imagine George desperately trying to drown out the pain, not knowing how to cope. George’s passing changed the way I respond to my ambitions. My desire to make a difference still lingers. I still don’t want to sit by and do nothing when a crisis occurs. But I know that I will never truly influence or empower people without first empathizing with them. I see myself becoming more considerate of others, more aware of how my work affects a larger community, and more passionate about what I do. The significance of my life is no longer tied to making headlines and history, but to the people I’ve influenced and those who have influenced me.
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