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Leading by example: a conversation between City Year AmeriCorps members reggie and gerardo [Voices From the Field]

Reggie Stuart and Gerardo Arauz met as students at Georgia Jones Ayers Middle School, a City Year partner school located in the Allapattah community of Miami. Six years later, Reggie and Gerardo crossed paths again as City Year AmeriCorps members serving at the very school in which they first met.

Reggie and Gerardo sat down for a conversation with each other to reflect on their year of service and how their experiences as students served by City Year have better prepared them to serve as AmeriCorps members.

Gerardo Arauz: I remember when I saw you for the first time, Reggie, at City Year. It felt, like, weird, since it had been so long since we were at school together. I felt kind of excited because we came to give back to the same school that we graduated from.

Reggie Stuart: Just seeing some of my students reminds me how I was. Just talking with the students, so they can realize that just because you live in Allapattah doesn’t mean the only thing in life for you is Allapattah. Some of the students are way more mature than how we used to be, just hearing that some of them already have plans for what they want to do in the future. But then there are students who don’t know what they want to do in life, thinking that they’re not going anywhere. I just try to guide them with my heart.

Gerardo: Exactly. I’m very glad to have City Year in our old middle school. I remember the way I encountered City Year. They used to pull me out of class all the time to work on my behavior and on my grades.

Reggie: City Year was at our high school too, and though I didn’t work with AmeriCorps members directly, in the 12th grade I built a very strong connection to one, Ms. Karina. She helped me look at what college I wanted to go to, how to apply for scholarships–she even got me to apply to City Year when I realized I was working toward a degree that I did not really enjoy.

Gerardo: I know we both joined City Year because we want to be part of that change. I know my little brother and my little sister have City Year at their high school and they are in good hands.

Reggie: Coming back to the middle school we went to–like we know where everything happens. We know where people should be, and we can try to get them to avoid the traps we fell into. I remember in middle school, to avoid class, everyone usually just hid in the bathroom. During my third week here, I went to one of the spots where students skipped class and stopped a couple of them and asked why were they avoiding class–just talked with them, got to know them. Why do you think you have to go to class? Why you don’t like school? Because sometimes they just need to talk, to let it all out. They just need to communicate with someone.

Gerardo: Also I feel I need to approach students the way I wanted to be approached. I feel like I understand them because all of us come from the same background. They look up to us because they know that we know their brothers and sisters. Our old friends have little brothers and sisters that we mentor so that gives us another way to connect.

Reggie: As a student, especially in middle school, you don’t feel like you connect with the teachers that much, so having someone close to your age to talk to, that’s one of the greatest things.

Gerardo: It’s important to understand their story because every time a student does something there’s a reason behind it. Students respect us because they know that we went to this school. Everything they do, everything they see in the neighborhood, everything they see in the news about our neighborhood–we’ve been through it.

Reggie: With some students, we just see little versions of ourselves. Only we want them to be better than us. Like with Anthony*–he was one of the first students I noticed. Everyone just knows us as brothers, because they say we look alike and act like we’re brothers, so I just treat him like a little brother because I never had a little brother before.

Anthony and I talk about his grades, and when you are supposed to be doing work instead of playing around. Anthony’s started coming to school more now. He’s going into high school soon and he’s doing good and that he’ll continue doing good. He’s not going to fail his classes.

Gerardo: Long term, I really want to work with social services or work with a youth program in Miami to help families in need, but I feel like I need to get out of my comfort zone next year. So I plan go to New York, which has like the biggest school district in the United States, and serve as a second year City Year AmeriCorps member.

Reggie: That’s great, G. I don’t know what school yet, but I plan on going back to get my degree in both education and music. Music has always been a passion of mine, and I like building connections with students through teaching.

Gerardo: Nice. To be honest I did fall in love with City Year the moment I stepped in the school. I now see all the impact I could make in life, not just on mine but on others’ lives.

Reggie: That spark that starts the flame in your heart–that’s what City Year is.

*Name changed to protect student privacy

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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