Learning to Lead by Serving

Colin Jones is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Citizen Schools Massachusetts. Following the completion of the Fellowship, he will be attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

The opening exercise at the admit day at Harvard Kennedy School was based on a simple question: what brought us to this point?  Everything I hope to accomplish is linked to the experiences I’ve had in national service, from the 9th Ward of New Orleans, to classrooms in Oakland, California, and ultimately my time in the Teaching Fellowship with Citizen Schools.

But my answer was inextricably linked with a moment at a federal courthouse.

When I joined the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship in the summer of 2010, I had already been on the ground in urban education for two years in Oakland, California.  I had seen firsthand the impact of hands-on career based learning, college access curriculum, and the unique power of bringing urban youth together with professional volunteers. Citizen Schools was the perfect place for me to continue my journey of service.

The moment that encapsulated my experience at Citizen Schools was during my students’ mock trial presentation in May 2011. Despite the fact that we had been practicing for weeks during our sessions with attorney volunteers at the WilmerHale law firm in Boston, nerves were running high. That day there were multitudes of pre-event jitters that tested my nerves as much as the students. One of the 6th graders acted out.

This was a student that some adults had written off and labeled as a lost cause. He was constantly on the detention list and in the principal’s office. My team and I didn’t think of things that way.  From our perspective, he was a prime target for one of our best apprenticeships and I made sure that he was partnered with the strongest possible attorney to guide him through. The day of the presentation at Moakley Federal Courthouse, we met one on one. His nerves were causing him to doubt what we had done up to this point, but he rose above it. He delivered his part of the trial proudly and lived up to the work we had done over ten weeks.

 The moment of realization came after, in a mundane moment over sandwiches and cake. He said to me, “Mr. Jones, this was pretty cool. I’m sorry I said I hated it earlier.” I almost teared up right there. In that moment, I had an ephemeral treasure that reinforced everything I hoped to achieve. In this moment, a student ensnared in academic and behavioral challenges had an idea of hope, accomplishment, and achievement. This day, he lived up to his highest potential.

My motivation to serve my nation and its communities goes back to my childhood. My own upbringing had similarities to the students I committed to serve. My father passed away when I was in 3rd grade, after succumbing to addiction. My mother enlisted our family in every social service program available, Mass Health, Food Stamps, Free Lunch, and we relied on family support and food banks to ensure ends were met.

In retrospect, I consider myself lucky for many things, and I know that many individuals are in far tougher situations than those I faced. Foremost among the blessings I received was an excellent education. I knew firsthand the power of education to overcome all the struggles I faced, and I was committed to providing these opportunities to as many students as I could. I enrolled at Oberlin College in the fall of 2004. I followed the Oberlin motto of “learning and labor” that ties the educational experience to pursuits greater than self.

From a first-year seminar working with the Lorain County Urban League to my first work study job as a Math Tutor at Langston Middle School to three years of service on Oberlin College Student Senate, service opportunities would shape not only my college experience, but my overall path in life.

In the Fellowship, I put a capstone on my own AmeriCorps experience, one that shaped my life and priorities. Failing grades were brought up, team culture was built, field trips, WOW! events, and family nights were planned and executed. I learned more than I ever could have imagined. I reaffirmed what really matters in my life and became ready to take the next step in my career at a place that I dreamed of for years.

It’s still sinking in. I’m a Harvard man dedicated to the calling of John F. Kennedy, to ask and to learn what I can do for the country that I so love.