Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'From Bored Rebel to Proud Nerd: My Journey Through Germanna'

GCC graduate and tutor Jessica Perez delivered the following speech, "From Bored Rebel to Proud Nerd: My Journey Through Germanna," to an auditorium filled with faculty and staff today at the Daniel Technology Center. It earned her a standing ovation.

Jessica Perez

Every Germanna student has a story. My story began when I was in the ninth grade when my math teacher imparted some advice to my mother during a meeting: "Mrs. Leonard, sometimes parents have to face the fact that their child is not very smart." The child she was speaking about was me and for the duration of my time in high school, I viewed its walls as a prison, and I became an expert at breaking out. And, if I was stuck behind the prison walls, I was determined to make the time interesting for my fellow students and teachers. 
On the day that all the seniors in my class were picking up their caps and gowns, my principal called me into the office to inform me that I would not be able to attend graduation unless I served thirty-three detentions in three days. She then went on to tell me that the reason why colleges were very selective was to ensure that they would not allow students like me. Though, in her defense, I think she was still mad at me for buying dead fish and hiding them all over the school as a prank. To be honest, her words didn't really affect me because I knew that I was not going to go to college; I was not smart enough and, even if I was, I did not have any money to pay for it. So, I left her office laughing because my time in prison was coming to an end. Freedom was upon me.
After high school, I began to work retail. As my high school boyfriend, later my husband, worked his way to an M.B.A., I worked my way through the ranks of retail management. In 2003, my husband landed a job with the government, and we moved from Ohio to Virginia. I soon began working as a manager at the Barnes and Noble in Springfield. And, I loved my job. I was surrounded by books, coffee, and great people. The hours, however, were exhausting. Anytime I would seem to be particularly exhausted, my husband would bring up the idea of going back to school. For many years, I placated him when he brought it up. I feigned my consideration of the subject because in the back of my mind, I still heard my ninth grade math teacher: "Mrs. Leonard, sometimes parents have to face the fact that their child is not very smart." I faced that fact, I did not need to prove it.
One day, my husband won. I must have been extremely tired because next thing I knew, we were filling out an application on the Germanna website and figuring out where and when I would be taking the COMPASS test. 
While driving to take the test, I was surprised at how close the Locust Grove Campus was to my house in Lake of the Woods. It's funny how you can live somewhere and have no idea what is around you. Of course, this is also the feeling I had as I took the test. It is still a bit of a haze for me, but I do remember that afterward, I met with a counselor who seemed extremely pleased with my test scores. She informed me that I tested into English 111 and Math 03. When I asked her what Math 03 was, she explained that it was a developmental math, but that I scored really high for someone who had been out of school for more than a decade. Of course, all I heard was "developmental math," and again, the words of my ninth grade math teacher began to play in my mind:" Sometimes Mrs. Leonard, parents have to face the fact that their child is not very smart."
Ann Lyons, Jessica Perez, Diane Critchfield

A couple of days later, I spoke to my advisor, Diane Critchfield. She wanted to arrange a meeting to help me register for classes. By this time, however, I knew that this whole college thing was a mistake, but I was going to try it to make my husband happy. So, I decided that when I went to meet Ms. Critchfield, I would be honest with her. She seemed amused. In fact, her response to my little disclaimer was to sign me up for her English 111 class. 
That first summer of school was amazing. I found myself enjoying learning again. Not only that, but I no longer viewed school like a prison. Every person I encountered throughout the day was so nice and helpful. Every morning the person behind the cashier window wished me a good morning, and Security always waved good-bye as I drove away. When I needed help with Blackboard, the people in the ACC happily walked me through the steps. When I needed help finding online journals for a research paper, the librarians patiently assisted me. Even those who I had never spoken to would smile at me as I walked down the hallway. I began to look forward to going to school. Not just for the classes, but also for the environment. Needless to say, I did not fail my first semester at Germanna, and I began to venture out and take classes at the Fredericksburg Campus and Daniel Center where I had similar experiences.
However, this did not completely convince me that I had the ability to succeed. I viewed each new semester as a new opportunity to fail. Especially because there was a math class involved. But, at the end of my first year, I received an Academic Award for English, and at the ceremony is when I met Ann Lyons for the first time. She asked me to come by the Locust Grove Tutoring office the following Tuesday to talk to her about becoming a tutor.
We had a nice conversation about what it means to be a tutor and how I would tutor writing. But then, Ann dropped a bomb on me, she asked me how I felt about tutoring math. And, I must add that only Ann Lyons would think my reaction was a positive in terms of hiring me because I turned white. I swear that the very idea caused my stomach to drop. She hired me on the spot.
Now, at this point, I have talked a lot about people who believed in me, but when did I begin to believe in myself? That has an interesting answer. 
As I was taking my own math classes, I also began tutoring people who were taking math classes that I had already taken. For some reason, maybe because it was not my math anymore, concepts that seemed very difficult to me began to make a lot of sense. Soon, I was able to explain a math concept in several different ways. This coincided with my own math classes seeming to be easier to me. I actually enjoyed my Math 152 class with Mr. Nickens so much that I took his Math 240 class that I did not need. Others began to notice this change before I did. It was not until I took a trip with Dr. Sam to Richmond that I realized what happened.
I was invited to go down to the State Assembly, along with many other students, to represent Germanna students. Because I lived out in Locust Grove, Dr. Sam offered to pick me up at the Locust Grove Campus. I thought that we were meeting everyone else at the Fredericksburg Campus, and it was not until we were passed the 126 mile marker on I-95 that I realized that I was wrong; we were on our way to Richmond, just me and Dr. Sam. But, Dr. Sam was very engaging. We talked about a variety of subjects until we landed on tutoring. He asked me what subject I liked to tutor the most, and the answer came out of my mouth before I could even think about what I was saying: math. 
That was the moment that my old ninth grade math teacher's words left my brain altogether. Those words had haunted me for almost twenty years, but at that moment, a simple answer to a simple question banned them from my mind forever. 

You see, all of you make up the experience that students have here at Germanna. Each of you play a part on a student's journey to better themselves. Some of the students that come here were not great students in high school. Some had horrible experiences with a teacher who did not believe in them. Some students have not been to school in many years and lack confidence in themselves and what they can bring to the classroom. I was all of these students. And I would like to thank all of you for the smiles you gave me in the hallway, the words of encouragement in the classroom, and for believing in me when I was not ready to believe in myself. Because whether or not I personally met you along my own journey, you were part of it, and I thank you for making Germanna Community College the place where people like me can come and realize our potential. Thank you.

Jessica Perez went on to become a Virginia All American Scholar and graduated summa cum laude from Germanna.



S. Smith said...

Jessica was an engaging speaker and a pleasure to have as a student. She is an inspiration to us all!

Stacy Laine said...

I LOVED reading this. I taught Jessica in .. MATH. She will forever be remembered as an inspiring and HARD-WORKING girl. I LOVED the spunk she added to my class and am THRILLED when she comes to my classes to introduce the tutoring center to my students!