On June 14, 55 AmeriCorps members graduated from City Year New Hampshire during our annual Graduation Ceremony, marking the completion of their 1,700 hours of service to Manchester. Every year, our AmeriCorps members nominate a distinguished peer for the Spirit of City Year Award, which is announced at Graduation. The room erupted with cheers when Comcast NBCUniversal representative Sara Dionne announced the winner of this year’s award: Julie Cusano. Reprinted here are her remarks upon accepting the award.
Thank you so much. I am extremely grateful and honored to be standing before you all today. First and foremost, I would like to start by thanking the City Year New Hampshire corps for voting and believing that I am deserving of this space and this award. I am humbled by the love and support I have received this year from the City Year New Hampshire community, the Northwest Elementary school team, my City Year mentor Marlana Trombley, my students, and my partner teacher Jenn Gagnon. Each person I worked closely with this year has positively influenced my growth both personally and professionally, and I can’t thank them enough for helping me get to where I am today.
This service year, I have been surrounded by a corps filled with talented, intelligent, kind, hardworking individuals who are invested in their students’ success, and are actively making a difference here in Manchester and beyond. While each of us worked over 50 hours a week, a handful of us worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, and still got up every morning to go to school and serve. Many of us applied to undergraduate and graduate universities during this service year and were accepted to top schools in the country for education, law, and social work. Some of us even took college classes at the same time, with one of our corps members, Shanice, earning her Associates Degree from Manchester Community College! Another one of our corps members, Lissette, attended trainings at night and received her certificate as an interpreter because she was driven to further help students and families in the Manchester community. And some have decided that their work with City Year is not finished and will be dedicating another year to service.
While every person’s path is different, I believe there is value in sharing the journey, and today I would like to share a bit of mine with you all.
When I was in middle school, my 8th grade English teacher Mr. Fersch was the first mentor that I connected with. When I was struggling socially to make friends at school, and enduring financial hardships at home, he was there to cheer me on, to challenge me, to listen to me, and to push me to stay invested in my education.
When it came time for my 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. my family was unable to afford it. Mr. Fersch and his parents decided to pay for both my twin brother and me to attend, as long as we did community service around the school as repayment. My family and I were extremely grateful. I started to see just how good people could be and realized just how important it is to give back.
Flash forward to my sophomore year of high school, I was constantly late for school, and stopped caring about getting there on time. Then, a new vice principal came to Epping High School, and he helped shift my perspective. While I had been previously serving numerous lunch and afterschool detentions for being late, he decided to take a different approach. “Show up at 7AM to serve your detention, that way, you are here on time to learn,” he’d say. I’ll admit, it was hard for me at first, since I'd started feeling like a burden to the administration, but with Mr. Houlihan, things were different.
He wanted me there because he genuinely cared and so he also showed up at 7am and chatted with me until 7:25 when school actually started. I went from being a girl who was always late and losing faith in the staff members at school, to someone who showed up early because someone invested their time into helping me be better. I am very grateful for that.
Later, in my junior and senior year of high school, I took an Early Childhood class with a woman named Mrs. Ranks, who was the first person to talk to me about applying to college, and encouraged me to apply to her alma mater, Wheelock College. I remember the anxiousness I felt about applying, and only applied to places without an application fee. Luckily, Wheelock was one of them, and four years later I graduated from there with my Bachelor's before doing my year of service here at City Year. Had I not met Mrs. Ranks, I don’t think I would have applied to a 4-year college or believed that I could make it.
The last mentor I would like to highlight is a professor I had at Wheelock during my senior year of college, Janine. She is especially important to me because she challenged me to reflect on what I wanted my life to look like after graduation. I spent a lot of time in her office after class talking with her about my aspirations and my love for education. Then one day she asked me, “Have you ever thought of applying to Harvard? I really think that you should,” to which I laughed. I genuinely thought she was joking. I remember awkwardly responding back with “I don’t want to get my hopes up about something just to fail.” Then she said something that I’ll never forget – “Julie, you can throw your hat in the ring and you might get in, you might not. But do you really want to think about the ‘what if’ when it could be possible?”
Now, a little over a year later, I am privileged to share as a first-generation college graduate that what I once believed was impossible, has become a reality. I am attending Harvard this year to pursue my Master of Education, and I fully believe I owe it to the mentors who have built me up over the years by sharing their love, dedication, and time with me.
In closing, I would like for everyone to close their eyes. This may seem weird, but just trust me. Now, with your eyes closed, I want you all to think back to when you were in school. Think about the struggles you may have had with your friends, your family, and with academics. I want you to picture the faces of the teachers and mentors who stood up for you, challenged you to work hard and ask questions, pushed you to love yourself, and believed in and invested in your success. What did they say or do that helped keep you going? Can you see them? ….. Alright, now you may open your eyes. Do you think that you would be where you are today without them?
Growing up, I am sure that every person in this room can think of a teacher or mentor that has had a significant impact on them, and their learning. The incredible part about these memories is that often times, it takes just one person at school to change our lives for the better, and I know that that is what City Year does for the students that we serve. Remember Mr. Houlihan I spoke about earlier? Well, he is here today, and is the Impact Coach at City Year New Hampshire. We reconnected nearly 6 years later this past year and my journey has come full circle watching him teach the corps how to be powerful mentors for our students.
The impact we have on the children we work with is extremely special because we love them so deeply, and encourage them to believe that they can be successful by providing extra support they otherwise may not get. We see and hear the things that no one else may have the time to address and dedicate an entire year to making sure they are receiving the help that they need to chase their dreams and actualize their goals. These ideas about who we are and what we grow up to be largely come from the experiences we have – and if there is anything I know for a fact; it is that City Year helps children to trust that they are capable of great things. Thank you.
City Year is still accepting applications for the 2019-2020 school year! If you or someone you know is interested in serving a year with City Year, get in touch with a local recruiter today.