Monday, September 27, 2010

Higher Achievement Alumna Responds to Obama's Recent Back-to-School Speech

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

That’s the kind of culture of excellence you promote here at Masterman; and that’s the kind of excellence we need to promote in all America’s schools. That’s why today, I’m announcing our second Commencement Challenge. If your school is the winner; if you show us how teachers, students, and parents are working together to prepare your kids for college and a career; if you show us how you’re giving back to your community and our country – I’ll congratulate you in person by speaking at your commencement.

- From President Obama’s back-to-school address delivered at Julia R.Masterman Magnet School in Philadelphia.

In President Obama’s recent address to Philadelphia middle and high school students, he stressed a few key components that, if you weren’t paying attention, could serve as carbon copies to Higher Achievement’s mission, values and goals. Obama passionately spoke to the importance of an overall culture of excellence for student achievement, where working hard, stepping up to challenge, and being a leader is essential. He also spoke to what it means to really be successful, and how strong citizenry is a characteristic of success. As a Higher Achievement alumna and current staff member, I, as well as the more than 10,000 Higher Achievement alumni understand the roles that each of these skills can play within the road to success.

What Obama calls a culture of excellence, Higher Achievement affectionately refers to as a culture of high expectation. As a young student, I remember how comfortable I was being in the background. If the teacher didn’t call on me, I wasn’t going out of my way to get his or her attention. However, after joining Higher Achievement, I found myself surrounded by staff who expected more out of us as students; but even better, I was among students who wanted more for themselves and their peers. My entire academic approach was transformed by something as simple as expectation. Once excellence was expected of me, I strived for it.

Of course, striving for excellence doesn’t always lend itself to immediately achieving it and that was another one of the many lessons that Higher Achievement taught me. Now that I had my academic attitude adjusted, it was time to work on my academic work ethic. For example, if I studied considerably hard for a test, spent an extra hour or two going over classroom material, got together with my friends to make sure I had the test concepts and still made a C on the test, that didn’t mean my efforts were in vain. Instead, that was my opportunity to review my efforts, see what I could have done differently, and apply the lessons learned to the next test. This, I learned, was the very essence of working hard.

It wouldn’t be in the spirit of Higher Achievement to stop at setting the expectation and working hard. Here, I also learned to step out side of my comfort zone. Once I mastered what I was great at, it was time to conquer what I was only good, or maybe even bad at. Higher Achievement pushed me aggressively to the next level, but simultaneously made me feel supported. I knew that if I were to misstep, Higher Achievement would be there to catch me before I fell, and put me right back on track.

It is a combination of setting the expectation, working hard and stepping up to challenge, that ultimately builds leaders. Some of the world’s greatest icons are those who think big, step outside of the box, and in turn give back to their communities. Since 1975, Higher Achievement has harvested the inner-leader in inner-city youth across the District. Now, in 2011, I am more than proud to be apart of the expansion efforts that will ultimately cultivate potential in young people, who like me, didn’t even know they had it. President Obama addressed the students of Masterman on what was sure to be a very special day for them; Higher Achievement addresses its scholars everyday about setting high expectations and changing not only academic outcomes, but the world.

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