Cathy Teoh with City Year students
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Last year, I dedicated my life to service by joining City Year. City Year is an education-focused nonprofit that places 17 to 24-year-olds in inner city schools to act as tutors and mentors to keep students on track to graduate high school. Prior to City Year, the only knowledge I had about teaching in underserved schools was through Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds and Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me. I had no clue what to expect, nor did I truly understand just how much a rowdy and uninhibited fourth grade class would change my life forever.

My fearless journey started when I moved to DC from Los Angeles. I was far, far away from the convenience of my car, the sunny beaches, my dearest friends, my loving family, and my precious pooch Mia. I was scared to death to not only move across the country for the first time, but to work in a high crime area in a notoriously dangerous city. On top of that, I was terrified of failing my students. What if I wasn’t a good mentor, tutor, or role model?

There was no way to know what would happen in my class, whether or not the kids would like me, or if I would be able to get them up to reading level. No matter what, all I could was try my best, knowing I had 32 students’ lives to change. My “City Year” was the most trying and demanding year of my life, but also the most rewarding. I miss my students everyday, and part of me wishes I could go back. Since I can’t, instead I want to share some advice for the new corps members who are carrying on my legacy.

Reflecting back on my service, I realize just how impactful City Year’s values are. For the new corps members, I hope you can utilize my interpretations of them, and use them to impact your upcoming year of service.

Service to a Cause Greater Than Self

It is easy to get caught up in the politics of education. The most important thing is to stay focused on the belief that you are creating a tiny ripple of hope that can inspire a movement. Whether it is doing one extra hour of homework help or helping a student go over their times tables during lunch, every action serves a purpose.

“When we put on our uniform, our causes become one. Powerful, clear, and united. From Seattle to Orlando, we will not rest until there is educational opportunity for all children by ensuring they do not drop out of school. We will not stop until our students are on track for graduation. And with graduation – college or employment, and a life of purpose.” -Charlie Rose, Senior Vice President and Dean at City Year Headquarters

Students First, Collaboration Always

My students’ success was extremely important to me; it is why most people join City Year. What is so great about the organization nationwide is that there are numerous other organizations that are cognizant of the amazing work we do. Take advantage of these partnerships! Your students’ success can be best achieved if you are resourceful.

Also, everyone makes mistakes! Never be afraid to ask for help (it’s not a sign of weakness!). Everyone is in the same boat as you, and there is no shame in getting help for a better solution. If you collaborate with others, the finished product will not only be done better and faster, it will allow you to be the best YOU possible for your students - well groomed, fed, and rested of course!

Belief in the Power of Young People

I believe this is the most important value of all. City Year believes that as young 17 to 24-year-olds, we can make a difference by acting as near-peers. We domino that down to our students, believing that no matter their age, they can achieve greatness. Youth helping youth shows students that giving starts at any age, and that it is never too early to start changing the world. So, to those serving this year with City Year, who may want to hang up their red jackets at times, I leave you with this: Think of the big picture. Teamwork never fails. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Believe in your students as much as we believe in you.


Cathy Teoh is a Social Innovation team assistant at the Case Foundation, and a former intern. This is the first in a series of blogs we'll feature from City Year and AmeriCorps alumni about their journeys to Be Fearless through service.

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