Student Speech: How Citizen Schools Helped Me Flourish

Agostinha DePina is a senior at John D. O'Bryant High School in Boston. She will be attending Clark University next year. This is her speech from the Citizen Schools  2012 A WOW! Affair Gala.

"Let me take you to my homeland. Bare feet feeling the hot sand, Chasing chickens, riding horses. These are my roots.

My name is Agostinha DePina, and I’m a senior at John D. O’Bryant High School.

I spent the first eight years of my life on the island of Fogo in Cape Verde where my parents grew up, and only my mom went to high school. We were really poor. I remember sleeping on the floor, hungry some nights with one dress and no shoes. But I also remember feeling free and happy.

I immigrated to the US when I was nine years of age. My parents brought me here for the opportunity. But I was terrified. I remember my first day of elementary school being in the big yellow bus in the middle of strangers, without knowing a word of English, and entering a classroom where I did not know what to do or what to say, so I placed myself in a comfort corner.

I might have gotten lost right away if it weren’t for my second grade teacher, Ms. Gomes. With her charismatic and intellectual teaching, she taught me English, and helped me see what was possible in my new country. In the Cape Verdean culture, women are taught that their dreams of success are their husband’s dreams, that they don’t need a voice because the man has a voice. But in the United States, I saw things I had never seen before: girls of all ages going to school, mothers being independent and working, and women striving to be a part of something. Ms. Gomes showed me that women can become queens without a king. But I was still shy—a quiet girl with a lot to say, but with no voice.

For several years I was a passionate student, always eager to go to school. My mom and my dad were always supportive of me. I could see how hard they worked for my six siblings and me—my mom is a housekeeper at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel and my dad is a cleaner at UMass Boston. They told me every day that I am responsible for my future and my success.

However, as classes became more rigorous and the material was harder to understand, my parents’ motivational speeches were not enough. In sixth and seventh grade, I couldn’t keep my grades up, and I began to lose my drive for school.

In eighth grade, though, I was lucky. I got a support network that kept me from going off track. A group of people believed in my potential and gave me the knowledge and skills that have gotten me where I am today. These were the people of Citizen Schools.

My team leader, Julianne, would always come over and talk with me. Every time I had a test or quiz at school, Julianne would help me study. Then professionals from Putnam Investments came and taught us interview skills. Two volunteers from Choate, Hall, and Stewart—Eleanor and Cara—worked with me on writing essays that would be published in a magazine. They became my mentors.

And every Tuesday and Thursday, I took apprenticeships. I measured my school's carbon footprint one semester, and I tried creative writing. We created stories by observing regular day people during their daily activities. My Citizen Teacher Jennifer made me read my poem to my peers, where I overcame my shyness.

Julianne and the Teaching Fellows took us to visit eight different colleges. I loved visiting Brown and Trinity. A panel of Trinity students talked to us about their experience. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college. But, I remember one student talked about how Trinity College really made it possible for her to attend college and persevere. I knew that if she could do it, I could overcome any obstacle I face.

I am proud to say that I've just been admitted to Clark University, where I’ll major in communications.

But I would not have made it into Clark, or even be graduating from the great high school I attend, without Citizen Schools. I wouldn’t have discovered my passion for writing. And most importantly, the people I saw coming to my school and giving back made me realize that my aspiration in life is to give back. I am currently writing and performing with Teen Voices Magazine, where I use writing to empower other teen girls. My dream is to start a non-profit for girls, to help them find the confidence that others have helped me find, and give other girls the opportunities that many women never receive.

All these people—Jennifer, Eleanor, Cara—they saw my talents and potential at the right time in my life, and they helped me reveal it. I’m especially grateful to my team leader Julianne, who came over and sat next to that shy girl. I’m excited to say that Julianne is here tonight.

Thank you all. All of you in this room tonight are making it possible for teens to stay on track. You who volunteer, or send your employees to volunteer, are changing kids’ lives. Your donations bring Citizen Schools to more schools, and help students discover the drive to go to college. You realize that there is nothing more important than education, and you know that you have a role to play in helping teens learn what they want to become in life.

The girl who walked barefoot on the heat of the Cape Verdean sand With one dress to wear, no money in her hands Is the same girl who is now making her dreams come true Now it’s my turn to give back so that everyone can see How this Cape Verdean girl who was a slave to poverty Is now the master of her destiny.

Thank you all for supporting Citizen Schools. Please be generous tonight."

This year at A WOW! Affair, over 400 people were in attendance including many of our biggest supporters. In addition to Agostinha's inspiring speech, the event honored Citizen Teachers and corporate sponsors for answering the call to transform education. Donald Gregorio, Executive Assistant at Jack Morton Worldwide, was recognized as Citizen Teacher of the Year for his work on the Brand You apprenticeship. As a National Leadership Partner of Citizen Schools and one of our leading providers of volunteer teachers, Cognizant was also honored for applying the same kind of passion and innovation to improving learning for students as they do to their business. Francisco D'Souza, CEO of Cognizant, accepted the honor on behalf of the company.

Other corporate sponsors at the event included Bain Capital Chidren’s Charity, WilmerHale, LLP, ArcLight Capital Partners, Edwards Wildman Palmer, LLP, EMC Corporation, Jack Morton Worldwide, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, PC, Ropes & Gray, LLP, and State Street Corporation.