Two years ago, I was living in Texas with my grandmother. Things were tough at home. I was struggling in school, and then I learned it was going to take an extra year to graduate, which really upset me. Everyone around me expected me just to drop out, and I started to believe them.
That summer, I moved to the south side of Chicago to live with my mom and was enrolled in Camelot Excel Academy of South Shore -- an alternative school that helps put students like me back on the right path. I was very nervous my first few days. I didn’t talk to anyone. I just wanted to keep my head down and focus on getting my credits up to graduate on time.
Soon, I began to see that people around me believed in me and wanted that same goal for me. Teachers and staff encouraged me to push myself and get my work done. In the classroom, I focused hard and was often the first one done, which gave me time to do extra credit and earn high percentages. Excel teachers were also there for me when I needed to manage issues happening outside of school. I was able to take time to go to interviews and find a job to help support me and my family. Since all schoolwork is completed inside the classroom, I was able to focus on school while I was at Excel, and work when I was at work.
This support and encouragement completely changed my confidence and outlook on education. I kept a 4.0 GPA those last couple years even while I had a job outside of school. My hard work combined with my attendance at school made me eligible for our student government. This is when I began to realize I could do more than I had thought I could, and that I had a voice that I could use to make a difference.
Using My Voice to Make a Difference
At school, I used my voice to lead my peers, enforce our norms and expected behaviors. Outside of school, I started speaking at public engagements and town hall meetings about issues within our community. At the recommendations of Excel South Shore’s executive director, Mr. Anthony Haley, and Mr. Tirrell Taylor, director of student services, I had the opportunity to get involved in an organization called My Block, My Hood, My City, known as M3. M3 exposes teenagers like me to educational and cultural experiences that we otherwise wouldn’t have, helping to expand our world view.
Through M3, I’ve seen parts of Chicago and our surrounding region I hadn’t before, including Mackinac Island, Mich., where I got to eat new, delicious food and go to the beach. Not only had I never been on an island, I had never ridden in a boat, so this was a very special opportunity for me.
One Opportunity Leads to Another
Thanks to my involvement and the people I met working with M3, I was asked to join then Chicago Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot’s Youth Transition Committee, which is a team that advises the mayor on real issues teenagers face in our neighborhoods.
While on the committee, I participated in a project focused on mental health. This topic was important to me because we deal with mental health challenges in my family. Through my work on this project, we noted most mental health facilities in Chicago are located on the north and west sides, indicating we need to have more locations on the south side where I live to improve access to mental healthcare. Because of this project, I was invited to Mayor Lightfoot’s inauguration, which was very inspiring, as she is the first African American woman to be mayor of Chicago.
I’ve since attended the first Mayors National Youth Summit in Los Angeles as part of Mayor Lightfoot’s committee, where we discussed similar issues within our cities and ideas for how to address them. I was honored to participate in these committees. The opportunities have exposed me to a lot of Chicago’s problems and have inspired me to stay involved to work toward creating more positive changes in my community.
A few years ago, I was struggling in school and wasn’t sure if I would be able to graduate on time. I didn’t believe in myself. Once I realized I had support in school and people who believed in me, I was able to not only succeed but excel in several areas, giving me the confidence and opportunities to speak up and become involved in my community to help make a difference. Now, I know that my voice matters and that I can help other people in situations like me get the help and support they need. I’m looking forward to using my voice for future community initiatives and attending Heartland Community College in Spring 2020, where I plan to major in psychology.
Nala Cotton is a 2019 graduate of Camelot Excel Academy of South Shore in Chicago, Illinois.
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