Written by Nina Levine, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-15 San Jose State University Jay Pinson STEM Education Program
When I was in high school, my psychology teacher Mr. Burdette gave a lesson on the psychology of love. He spoke from the heart about what it is to truly love another person. He told my class about his daughter and the absolute love he has for her. His eloquence and passion spoke to me in a way that no other teacher had before. That night, I went home and wrote him a lengthy email about how deeply and profoundly that day’s lesson had affected me. I told him how his lecture was so moving that it had actually brought me to tears right there in the classroom. I told him how his speech was so beautiful and hit so close to home that after that class meeting I would never be the same person again. I told him, and this is a direct quote from the actual email I sent on the evening of May 20, 2010, “I suppose the point of this rambling e-mail is to thank you for presenting such meaningful and valuable lessons to the class… You truly changed my life.”
Later that evening, I got a response from him. He told me that my email was one of the nicest he’d ever received. He told me he always hopes to make a difference in people’s lives, but never knows unless someone tells him. He told me that he was humbled at the fact that he made a difference in my life. He told me that I was going to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.
At the end of the school year, I got him to sign my yearbook. In it, he wrote, “…Let’s make a deal! Let’s both try to make the world a better place. I think we can do it!” Now obviously, seeing as Mr. Burdette was one of my favorite teachers in high school, I took his yearbook message very seriously. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I ended up dedicating a year of my life to the CSU STEM AmeriCorps*VISTA Program – to try and keep up my end of Mr. Burdette’s agreement.
I’m going to be frank (yes, you can still be Garth). It’s been established that the compensation for being a VISTA is not substantial. I didn’t choose to serve as a VISTA for the wealth – that would be silly. I chose to serve as a VISTA to, as Mr. Burdette put it, “try and make the world a better place”. Furthermore, as First Lady Michelle Obama said, “Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” So that’s how I’m validating my year of service as it approaches its end. Did I make a difference in people’s lives? Have I really made the world a better place?
For those who don’t know, what I do in a nutshell is facilitate and coordinate after school STEM programs for K-12 students. We also train college service learning students to go into the K-12 after school programs to actually run the program and teach the kids. The semester here at San Jose State University is just about over now, which means the service learning students I’ve been working with since January are doing their final reflections of the school year. Just last week, I received a lovely email from one of my students. She very nicely thanked me for making her service learning experience a positive one, and she listed a few things that she had learned from me over the semester. I couldn’t help but think back to my email to Mr. Burdette and sense the similarities of the two situations. Have I, after less than one year of service, actually made a difference in someone’s life like Mr. Burdette had for me?
The assumption I made at the very start of my year of service back in July 2014 is that because we’re working to help STEM student success on a greater level, our efforts won’t necessarily be seen immediately. Because of this expectation, I’ve mainly been looking forward to long-term success and results, not instant gratification like this email I received.
But getting that email last week made me feel really great. It made me think that although I can’t see the direct effects of my work with regards to poverty and K-16 STEM student success, I made a difference in at least one student’s life. And let me tell you, it feels so fantastic. After making very little money and seeing very little results, it’s these things that make it all worth it for me. And thinking back to Mr. Burdette from five years ago, he probably didn’t think that one little lesson on the psychology of love would start the chain of events that would ultimately lead to my AmeriCorps service.
So my closing statement for everyone reading this today is: “Never decide to do nothing just because you can only do little. Do what you can. You would be surprised at what ‘little’ acts have done for our world.”