Today's guest blogger is Irina Shakarashvili, a 2014-2015 City Year New York AmeriCorps member that has returned as a Team Leader for PS/MS 206 in East Harlem. Her journey to City Year has been tumultuous, but she has remained perseverant in the face of adversity— a quality she has brought to the students she worked with directly last year, and now, wants to bring to the AmeriCorps team at 206 that she leads.
I was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and had a great, stable childhood. I had two loving parents, an older sister, a roof over my head, and food to eat which was not the case for all children in my developing country. But everything changed in September of 1996 when I was five years old. It was first day of 1st grade, and I was so excited to go to school. But when my father dropped me off, he told me that he would be leaving for the US and this would be the last time I saw him before his departure. I was in shock. I was a daddy’s girl and now I was losing my father. My 23 year old mom was left on her own to raise two daughters while my dad pursued better jobs in America. About two years later, my mom told us that she would be leaving to join him. She explained that they wanted to give us the opportunities we deserved and that was not possible in Georgia. As a child, I was only able to comprehend so much without feeling like the world was so unfair. Being without my parents was by far the hardest thing I have ever lived through.
Four years later, my parents used every penny they had saved to hire an attorney to help my sister and I to immigrate to America and join them. After several attempts, we boarded our highly anticipated flight from Amsterdam to America. Two hours into our journey, the captain announced that due to an attack on US soil we could not land at JFK Airport and we would be turning around. The date was September 11, 2001 - a day I will never forget. As a child, I had no clue how large the US was, so I automatically assumed the attack was near my parents and was terrified. When we got back to Georgia and called our parents, they told us they were fine, but two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. In the wake of this tragedy, we would not be allowed to enter the country for at least six months.
Finally, in the spring of 2002, we were able to reunite with our parents in America. The moment I saw my parents at the airport, I was overwhelmed with emotions. I was finally able to give them a hug and tell them how much I loved them. Less than week after our arrival our parents enrolled us in PS 9 in Passaic, New Jersey. Passaic was a very diverse town with a lot of immigrants. I felt safe going to school because I did not feel different from the other students, nor was I treated any differently. In fact, Ms. Weller, my ESL teacher, made the biggest difference in my life. Every day she spent dedicated time teaching my sister and me English. I had never had a teacher before her who was so invested in my education and my future. But before June, we left PS 9 because we moved from the project houses in Passaic to a quiet town called Lyndhurst.
In fact, Ms. Weller, my ESL teacher, made the biggest difference in my life. Every day she spent dedicated time teaching my sister and me English
What my parents didn’t realize was that Lyndhurst was an all-white town, and it was there that I first experienced racism. My classmates had never met anyone who was not like them and none of my teachers seemed to have either. I vividly remember my history teacher sending me to the principal’s office when I said I was from Georgia and that my native language was Georgian because she thought I was making fun of her. If the history teacher behaved that way, imagine how middle school students treated me... Every day in sixth grade, I went home crying. I told my parents I wanted to go back Georgia where I wasn’t judged based upon the clothes I wore or the fact that I didn’t speak the language. Then, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I learned English as fast as I could and worked harder than any other students. I tested out of ESL, got As in all of my classes, and even became the 8th grade class president!
I thought I was on top of the world, but that is when things took a turn again. During my freshman year of high school, my parents were having marital troubles and I bounced from one family friend’s house to another. I changed three schools in four months. When they managed to figure things out, we were hit with the recession, and my parents could no longer afford to pay for our house. The fall I was supposed to start junior year of high school, I dropped out of school to work full time to help my parents pay the bills. However, I was determined to return to high school and did so after a year in the working world. Back at school, I studied really hard to keep my grades up, but when the time came to apply to colleges, I was lost.
My parents were immigrants who barely spoke English and had never even seen a college application. My guidance counselor discouraged me from applying to some colleges because I had dropped out for a year, and she even cancelled my interviews without asking. I knew I had to do this on my own and I would stop at nothing to get there, so I called and set up my own interview with Seton Hall University, I went to that meeting ready to tell my story and make them believe in me as much as I believed in myself. Two weeks later, I received my acceptance letter from Seton Hall and was awarded the University Scholarship!
College was a fresh start for me, but as you can tell from my story so far, as soon as things start to look up, that is when it gets more challenging. In September 2013, I was involved in a motorcycle accident where the driver who hit me was under the influence. I was thrown 20 feet away from my motorcycle and I thought I was either going to die or be paralyzed for the rest of my life. In the hospital, my doctors and professors advised me to take a medical leave of absence and return after fully recovering. But I thought these people must be crazy if they think I am leaving college now. I had already lost a year in high school and I had worked too hard to get here. I was in a wheelchair for the entire fall semester, but I never once felt sorry for myself because I was fulfilling my potential.
Two weeks later, I received my acceptance letter from Seton Hall and was awarded the University Scholarship!
I graduated from college with a major and two minors with honors. Walking across the stage and having the dean hand me my diploma was my proudest moment at that time. But I was also humbled by the realization that I would not have gotten that diploma without the opportunities made available to me. I wanted to pay it forward by becoming the person that I needed when I was struggling. I joined City Year to do hands-on service with kids just like me. I serve to provide stability for students whose home lives are shaky, to be patient with those who are just learning English, to stand up for those who are different, to teach them to advocate for themselves, and most importantly to make them believe in themselves. I want my students to know that if a little girl from the Republic of Georgia who dropped out of school can graduate college with honors, then they can stay in school and succeed if they never give up.
As an AmeriCorps member with City Year New York, I served at PS/MS 206. I worked with 8th graders who were labeled by the school as the most challenging students both academically and behaviorally. 8th grade is a crucial year in a life of a pre- teen so I made sure I was always available for my students whenever they needed me. I called parents of my students who were absent regularly and asked for their help in improving their children’s attendance. I knew that I couldn’t help them if they were not present in school. I worked with a small group of students who were far behind their grade level with Math and ELA, constantly pushing them to care about their studies. I even got them to sign up for our afterschool program to make sure they got extra help with homework.
Irina with her Program Manager at PS/MS 206, Anna Reichlin
That is how I got to work with my 8th grade student “James”. James was placed on focus lists for English and math. He was still counting on his fingers, reading on a 5th grade level, and could not write on a straight line. I encouraged James to join our afterschool program and spent countless hours teaching him the fundamental skills he was lacking. At first he rebelled, walked away from me and even told me I wasn’t a qualified teacher so, "who was I to be helping him?" That’s when I realized he must’ve felt like I was judging him like everyone else. I told him I was here to help him get to high school and I would stop at nothing until I saw him get his diploma. ... After James saw that I was not going anywhere and was only going to spend more time with him, he began to work really hard on his academics. I saw in him the greatness that he could not see yet because no one had ever spoken highly of his potential. He started to truly care about his homework, and most importantly he started to believe in himself. It was no longer me asking James to show me his work, it was now James asking me to check his work before handing it in to his teachers.
I told him I was here to help him get to high school and I would stop at nothing until I saw him get his diploma. ... After James saw that I was not going anywhere and was only going to spend more time with him, he began to work really hard on his academics.
We also worked on his social emotional skills together. James struggled with using his fists not his words to express his emotions. Once I gained his trust, James would ask to talk to me for a few minutes whenever he felt angry or frustrated. Before I knew it he had learned to recognize his emotions and think things through before acting on them. I thought my proudest moment was walking across the stage to receive my college diploma, but that was until I watched James walk across the stage to receive his 8th grade diploma and a medal for the most improved student! With diploma in hand, he shared with me that he worked really hard to not disappoint me because no other person had put in that much effort into helping him with his education and his emotions. Although I do not know everything that the future has in store for James, I do know for sure that he will always remember me for believing in him. I hope that helps him to keep succeeding and never give up!
At that moment, I realized I had to come back and serve for a second year as a Team Leader with City Year in order to pass on what I had learned to other corps members.
Irina Shakarashvili with 2014-2015 East Harlem AmeriCorps members and City Year Board Member, Peter Hong at the Ripples of Hope Dinner